Moody skies and dramatic open spaces dominate 'My Ranching Life'; a body of work by photographer Jean Laughton, who not only documents the work of cowboys from horseback, but lives the life herself.
The lifestyle is in her blood; Jean originally grew up rural Iowa near the South Dakota border, spending much of her time on her grandmother’s farm. Eventually, the big city called and she moved to New York and began taking photographs, but the urge to document a disappearing America, seek out adventure and immerse herself in the landcape ultimately won out.
After making several trips, and producing two captivating series' of imagery; 'Go West' and 'Americana', Jean decided to move West.
So in 2003, after sixteen years of New York City life, Jean moved to the tiny remote Badlands town of Interior, South Dakota (population 69) with plans to continue her commitment to photograph the American West.
Here, Jean explains how she ended up with a life on the open plains...
On time travel and the beginnings of 'My Ranching Life'...
I got the adventure of a lifetime shortly after [moving to the Badlands], when my photography led me to the Lyle O’Bryan’s Quarter Circle XL Ranch, where I was given the opportunity to begin work as a novice ranch hand and learn all aspects of cowboying from an old time cowboy.
This is when my life and photography changed drastically - prompting the start of my long term photographic series “My Ranching Life”, - transitioning from portraiture against painted backdrops to documentation from horseback and from spectator to cowboy.
I have always used my photography as a way of attempting time travel. And working on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch is a bit like stepping back in time onto a Western movie backlot. The ranch was once home to Earl Thode - first world champion bronc rider of 1929. It is quite a thrill riding across the same land and the same White River as the cowboys from the past. I feel as if I have stepped ‘inside the photograph’ - riding around and photographing in a diorama of the West.
On landscape and equipment....
I photograph these scenes from horseback, while cowboying, with a Noblex 120 swing lens panoramic camera I carry in my saddlebags. The Noblex gives me a medium format negative suitable for large-scale printing. The panoramic format lends a cinematic quality while also conveying the vastness of the landscape. And black & white printing helps reverse time.
A visual diary of ranch history...
This area of ranches south of Belvidere, South Dakota, is rich with western heritage - with all cattle work done on horseback - creating quite the historical visual against the backdrop of the land and cyclorama sky.
My horse’s ears intentionally appear in some of the photographs - announcing my presence as part of the crew.
These photographs are a visual diary of just some of the many experiences I have been a part of while cowboying on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch and working alongside the crew of rugged hardworking cowboys on the ten area ranches we ‘neighbour’ with.
I hope this insider perspective conveys the beauty and timelessness of present day ranching to the viewer. With photographs that, at first glance, could have been taken during another time - depicting a profession that has changed little over the past century. The land, as backdrop, has a permanence all its own but the cast of characters are bound to change.
On the future...
I hope to one day give a glimpse back to this time in South Dakota family ranching history. I am proud to be a part of it all. I continue to ranch and photograph and am ever grateful to Lyle O’Bryan for being my cowboy mentor.
It has been quite the adventure so far.