Cowboy and farrier Kevin Hall wears the culture of the West in every line on his face and the knowing depth of his gaze.

Images of the West: Capturing Cowboys

Looking back, the country got me first. Spending countless miles driving through the West was intoxicating; an obsession that only worsened after years of snowboarding remote backcountry slopes and fly fishing the world’s most beautiful rivers. Once you experience that type of recreational solitude, nothing else will do.

Thomas Monk, Mark Lundy, and Kaylie Whittington take the scenic route home after gathering cattle on a ranch outside Wyola, Montana.

The first light of a Wyoming sunrise hits the soft, molten planes of Sid’s face, my gentle ride for a 12-hour gathering.

At some point, it struck me that people actually work in that majestic, yet brutally unforgiving terrain every day, and so I focused my lens on the cowboy. Perhaps my initial desire to document their daily lives stemmed from jealousy. Regardless, after the first day shooting with a crew in Nevada, I felt an immense appreciation for the work, people, and culture of the West, all of which seem to be greatly misunderstood by outsiders, who assume cowboys are just characters in movies and that pre-shaped hamburgers magically show up at the grocery store in the same manner as a 12-pack of beer.

Gabe Clark and Magin Montoya brand cattle on the OW Ranch.

Textbook Western storm clouds form over saddle horses tied to a trailer during a branding in Montana.

For almost three years now, I’ve been granted access to some of the most beautiful and historic ranches in the American West. And, with each visit, I find myself more in awe of these men and women who keep the world fed. Their personal values and lack of materialism are inspiring: In cattle country, a fine horse and country to roam are infinitely more desirable than a fancy car and diamond earrings. Horsemanship and the ability to read a cow are the only things that will move you up the proverbial pecking order. Even then, everyone puts their pants on the same way, no matter whether you’re the ranch owner or ranch hand. They’re all working together to achieve the same goal, using methods that have remained mostly unchanged for 100 years. There is no software update for a cowboy or a horse. In fact, I’d argue they’re living closer to the way the universe intended than any of the Earth aliens walking around with their eyeballs glued to an iPhone screen.

From the Spanish word meaning “to surround,” rodear branding, like that shown here on the OW Ranch in Montana, requires deftness, skilled horsemanship, and roping prowess.

Brothers Matt and Gabe Clark sit for a portrait in a beautiful old barn on the OW Ranch.

There’s nothing in the world I’d rather be than a photographer. If someone handed me $1 billion tomorrow, I’d still want to be a photographer. And that’s something I share with cowboys. They didn’t randomly fall into their “job.” It’s what they were born to do and all they’d ever want to do. Getting paid is a bonus.

Mark Lundy mounts his horse, Gus, after doctoring cattle in remote pasture in Montana.

Rob Hammer is a freelance photographer based in California, but he spends most of his time traveling across the country by truck to work on various photography projects focused on America and its people. 

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