Q&A With Scott Baxter on Photographing Cowboys

Joel Maloney, Queen Creek | Scott Baxter

Joel Maloney, Queen Creek | Scott Baxter

By now, you’ve probably seen the stunning cover of our September issue. The shot of Casey Murph and Jones Benally is the work of Scott Baxter, who also contributed the cowboy portion of September’s Cowboys & Indians portfolio. Baxter’s photographs are part of his ongoing Top Hand project, and over the next year, he’s traveling the West to make more photographs of cowboys.

Baxter recently visited Arizona Highways World Headquarters in Phoenix, and we asked him a few questions about his work.

How did this project come into existence?
The Top Hand project, which is what I’m tentatively calling it, was kind of a natural extension of my 100 Years, 100 Ranchers project. Sometimes, after you finish a large project, you start looking for what to do next. This was a much smaller project, but I wanted to make it different and stretch myself, photographically speaking.

Most of the photos were shot with old-fashioned, large-format cameras. What made you decide to go that route?
I had done 100 Ranchers with black-and-white film, but I used a variety of cameras, from medium-format up to 8×10. For Top Hand, I wanted to narrow it down and go even lighter, in terms of what I was taking. I did use a 4×5 on some of them as a backup, but I shot all of them on 8×10 film.

Then, I went beyond that and tried to find a process that was different, or that I thought would be appealing with the subject matter. I wanted to do them as palladium prints. They’re essentially just contact prints; photographically, it’s about as basic a process as you can get. It also restricted what I was doing. I basically used one camera and one lens, and I only shot about four sheets of film for each subject.

Tell us more about the palladium process and why you chose it.
It’s basically a contact-printing process. The paper is first coated with a solution, and after it dries, it goes into an exposure unit — almost a big light box, but with black lights on it. The negative is laid down on top of the paper and exposed directly onto the paper. For these photos, the exposures ranged from 13 minutes to 22 minutes. Then you put the paper into another solution, and the image comes up almost immediately. Then it gets rinsed and put in another bath, then rinsed again.

Because of the exposure times, it takes about 45 minutes to make each finished print, but it’s a very simple process. Palladium prints are very archival, similar to platinum prints. When processed correctly, they have a really long archival life.

What challenges or surprises did you encounter while making these photos?
I shot most of these in March and April. Particularly up in Coconino and Navajo counties, the wind starts blowing in late March and continues until the monsoon storms come in. On probably 75 percent of the photographs, I dealt with winds of up to 30 mph, which caused “camera shake” and blowing dust. So I set up wind breaks around the camera to minimize that. The other challenge was that I was doing this all by myself — it was just the cowboys and me.

A quirky thing that happened was when I photographed Sheila Carlson at the Flying M Ranch. On all of her photographs, I had a flare in the middle of the lens. I couldn’t figure out what caused it, because I had similar conditions the day before and the day after that shoot and hadn’t had any flares. Sheila had a wonderful relationship with a gentleman who had passed away a few weeks before the shoot. When I photographed her in March, she was wearing a felt hat, because it was colder. I went back to re-photograph her when it was warmer, and she was wearing a different hat. She told me that the man who had passed away really hadn’t liked that felt hat. So I kind of joked with her about that lens flare and said, “Maybe it was him.”

You’ve been photographing cowboys for a long time. What makes them so interesting to you?
I’ve probably worked with cowboys and ranchers for 10 years. I’ve never taken a photography class; my degree was in history. So there’s a historical aspect to my interest. To me, they represent the way people should live their lives, the way people should raise their kids and the way people should behave. I continue to learn a lot every time I work with them. Obviously, it’s an iconic subject matter, and it’s been beautifully photographed by a lot of people over the years. I just go out and shoot things in a way that feels right for me.

Are cowboys generally willing to be photographed, or do they have to be talked into it?
On this project, I think a lot of the cowboys really appreciated the fact that I was trying to do it in a more traditional way. I could have whipped this out digitally with a lot less cost and effort.

Generally, cowboys and ranchers are very private. Luckily, with 100 Ranchers, I had done a lot of work and met a lot of people. Many of the cowboys I had met had led me to other cowboys. They can be somewhat reticent, but they’re not any different than you and me. They’re just out there doing their jobs. The two guys I photographed at the CO Bar Ranch — Duke Vance and Justin Morgan Rodgers — were busy, so my job was to figure out what I wanted to do, get it done and let them get back to work.

What advice would you give novice photographers who are interested in this style of photography?
The first thing I tell people is, “Just shoot.” People get to see the photos I like or that Arizona Highways likes, but they don’t get to see all the mistakes. They could have been something esoteric, or I could have just screwed up. Just find something you’re interested in and start shooting. It doesn’t have to be cowboys. It could be anything.

I also don’t like to overdo the Photoshop aspect of it. I trained as a film photographer, so I try to do a lot of my work on the front end. There’s a great quote, and it relates to digital photography: “Photography is perhaps the easiest medium in which to be competent, but perhaps the hardest medium in which to have a unique vision.” We’re really in danger of just pushing buttons without thinking about what we’re doing. When I’m photographing a person, there’s a really special moment when I know it’s right to push the shutter.

Where can people see more of your work?
The Top Hand project will first be exhibited at Desert Caballeros Western Museum, in Wickenburg, starting in October 2014. And a lot of the 100 Years, 100 Ranchers photos are online at www.100years100ranchers.com. I’m still doing some traveling for the Top Hand project, so I don’t have a website for that one yet.

I go out and photograph because I like to. It’s a very personal thing. But it’s an honor to be represented in Arizona Highways, especially considering the history of this magazine. It’s really humbling for me, and it’s a great relationship.

— Noah Austin, Associate Editor

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One response to “Q&A With Scott Baxter on Photographing Cowboys

  1. Pingback: Q&A: Joel Grimes on Navajo Portraits (and Bob Dylan) | Arizona Highways

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