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The Not-so-Wild West

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: July, 2016, Page 32
Photo by Michael Woodall

Scott Baxter shoots primarily black-and-white film. Here, he’s using a Linhof Technikarden 4x5 camera, while his trusty 1955 twin-lens Rolleiflex hangs nearby.
Photographer Scott Baxter’s Stirring Black-and-White Images Capture the Soul of an Arizona Tradition

It is perhaps the single ubiquitous image of America’s West: the cowboy, the drover, the rancher. From early Hollywood figures singing their way across the open range to principled patriarchs fighting against cattle rustlers and corrupt lawmen in revisionist films and novels, the archetype of the cowboy has been glamorized and romanticized for generations. But beyond the stereotype of ropin’ and ridin’ gunslinging heroes in hats and spurs is a 300-year-old industry in Arizona—one supported by hard-working men and women who continue to possess the very traits that typically define their celluloid counterparts: a lifelong connection to the land and the cattle, a sense of rugged individualism, and pride in where they come from and their family’s heritage.

It was these traits that first attracted photographer Scott Baxter to the lifestyle, and his ability to capture the honesty and simplicity that comes with the culture through hauntingly profound portraits to sweeping landscapes helped propel him and his subjects into the art spotlight.

The self-taught lensman with almost 30 years’ commercial experience is best known for his award-winning 2012 book, “100 Years, 100 Ranchers.” An official legacy project for Arizona’s centennial, the handsome coffee table book profiles in stunning black-and-white photos ranchers whose families have been tending land and cattle for a century or more. “I used to fly fish a lot on this private ranch, and I met the owner, Wink Crigler, granddaughter
of Molly and John Butler. (Molly, a pioneer in Apache County, was instrumental in promoting early tourism in the White Mountains; a lodge she founded at the turn of the century in Greer remains a thriving business today.) She introduced me to Sam Udall, who’s a cousin of former Congressman Mo Udall. Then I met Wink’s niece Kim Johnson, whose grandfather was partners with John Wayne in the 26 Bar Ranch,” Baxter recalls. “I really liked them, and I liked how they lived. My initial thought as I was talking to this small group of ranchers was that this lifestyle was tenuous given what was happening in our political climate and with modernization and kids not wanting to continue the legacy. So I came up with the idea to photograph them.”

“Silkie Perkins,” silver gelatin. Shot at Bakers Pass Tank in Yavapai County for “100 Years, 100 Ranchers.”
For more than a decade and across 50,000-plus miles, Baxter traversed the state, meeting with ranchers and getting to know them. He would go months, even years, listening to their stories and learning about each person before taking a single photograph. “To me, it’s important to make a connection with your subject,” he says. “There’s one rancher in the project who has since passed away. He was a wagon boss out of Concho. I rode around with him for a day and a half in an old Ford pickup, just shooting the breeze. He’d get out to change batteries on a windmill or pick up a generator. He was 84 years old, and he knew all of the roads. At the end, I asked him to take me to his favorite building, and he took me to the oldest one that was falling down.

“Generally, I don’t tell the subjects what to do, but this time I asked him to take off his glasses. He was in a deep shade, but there was a lot of light outside, which gave a nice kick to his eyes,” he continues. “I didn’t take anything but a camera and a tripod. I was trying to do stuff like it was done 100 years ago.”

For this project—and for all of Baxter’s art pieces—
that means going back to the basics. Baxter shoots primarily black-and-white film, which he develops and prints by hand. His kit includes a Hasselblad 500CM medium format, a Pentax 6x7, a Linhof Technikardan 4x5, a Calumet 8x10 and his favorite, a 1955 twin-lens Rolleiflex. “A photograph that I’m pretty well-known for, which was also my first Western image, ‘First Snow,’ was shot with that camera,” he notes. “It’s small and very quiet, with beautiful Zeiss optics.”

One of many ranchers featured in Baxter’s Top Hand project, Sheila Carlson works at the Flying M Ranch in Coconino County. Palladium print.
In an age where instant imagery, social media and digital manipulation reign, Baxter eschews the colorful, overly processed look that permeates most contemporary photography. “I kind of see in black and white,” he says. “By doing things in black and white, I find myself concentrating on my composition and what feels right. There’s something timeless about it. For me, it’s an intrinsic, emotional approach to the photograph. I want the person to come through and carry the image. Not the fact that he’s got on a yellow hat. So I worry less about that stuff and more about what’s going on here,” he adds, pointing to his eyes.

For Baxter, a good image is all about the eyes, and tightly framed portraits of men and woman of all ages are a hallmark of his work. Sun-kissed freckles and weathered creases serve as canvases for a young boy’s twinkle or the weary gaze of an elderly cowpoke, exhausted after a hard day’s work. “The eyes carry the photograph, whether the person is close up or just a tiny speck. There’s a different story going on with each of them,” he says.

Further underlining the simplicity of his style is his choice of processing for his final prints. Baxter often creates what are known as palladium prints. Warmer and with greater tonal range than traditional black-and-white images, palladium prints are also more difficult to create. A single print can take two to three hours to create. But the end result is worth the effort. “I love the look of palladium prints,” he says. “They have a very unique look to them—lots of depth and lots of soul. A digital print can be beautiful, but it’s ink sprayed on paper. There’s a depth to an analog, hand-printed photograph that you can’t get with digital. There’s a substance to the traditional processes and to a really well-printed photograph.”

It’s a substance that the art world has taken note of. Following publication of his book, Baxter began exhibiting at museums and galleries across the state. He has a piece in the permanent collection of the Phoenix Art Museum, and images from his ranching project can be seen in the Phoenix
Airport Museum in Terminal 3 of Sky Harbor International Airport. His work can be found in corporate collections and in homes of private collectors across the globe. “Some of my work can be a hard sell,” he admits. “While not all of my Western stuff is portraiture, a lot is. It’s not the Sierras, and it’s not sand dunes. But I’ve been finding my way more with individuals who are intrigued by it or for whom the story of a photo resonates. I don’t think about whether I can sell an image when I shoot it. I shoot it because it means something to me, because I’m driven to shoot it.”

Nelson Garber poses on his horse, Shotgun, while his dog Turbo rests. This image was shot for the Top Hand project in Old Horse Springs, New Mexico. Palladium print.
Following the success of his ranchers’ project, Baxter is back in the saddle, so to speak, working on his next years-long project, Top Hand. In cowboy lexicon, a top hand is the top, or best, rider on the ranch. The project will take him to up to 15 Western states and will result in a collection of 50 to 70 images.

“I’m fortunate that I’ve met a lot of great people through my work, and I’d like to think that I’m a better person because of them,” he says. “But it’s not about me as a photographer. I look at it more as being a conduit for the people I photograph, whether they are ranchers or cowboys or whomever. It’s really all about them. I’m just trying to tell their story.”

A good friend of Baxter, cowboy and musician Joe Hall, seen with his faithful pup King, passed away shortly after this photo was taken on July 9, 2014, in Livingston, Montana. “I remember the exact day, because he had just finished playing a song for my daughter,” says Baxter. Palladium print.
Part of the permanent collection of the Phoenix Art Museum, this expressive photo of Joel Maloney was shot while Baxter was working on Top Hand, although it is not part of the project. Silver gelatin.

“First Snow” was Baxter’s first Western photograph. The memorable image, shot with his Rolleiflex, captures rancher Sam Udall checking fences on a snowy day near Greer. “When I looked at the film, it was immediate,” Baxter recalls. Silver gelatin.

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