Book review: Time stands still at Colorado’s mountain ranches
August 25, 2017
There is no doubt that the modern, fast-paced world of the 21st century has reached its tendrils into every corner of the beautiful state of Colorado, with internet ready to reach nearly everyone, heated pavement to whisk snow from mountain resort driveways, and high-tech industries setting up shop up and down the Front Range. So, it is refreshing to delve into photographer, Michael Crouser's recent book, "Mountain Ranch," which depicts a timeless part of this state's heritage and culture that is still vibrant and deeply rooted in tradition.
Throughout Crouser's large format art book, stark black-and-white photos depict a way of life that has remained nearly unchanged throughout generations of ranchers. Each page reveals another layer of the rich cultural history that still exists on Colorado's Western ranches. The beauty and simplicity, the coarseness and ugliness, the cycles of life and death across the seasons and in all weathers — Crouser's photos reveal it all, without distracting commentary, just pure and simple storytelling with each engaging photograph.
Every aspect of traditional Western ranching practices are on display on each page of the coffee-table size book, which tells the stories of several families who allowed Crouser to follow them through each season's unique labors, and it is a project that occupied nearly a decade of the photographer's life.
As Crouser moved more deeply into the project, he says that his approach evolved, as he was drawn more closely into the lives of his subjects. As he came to know the ranchers and their valuable livestock, his photography underwent a stylistic change. He began to move more closely among his subjects, gaining a more intimate and visceral feel of the land and those who depended on it.
"I have always believed that how you say something is as important as what you say," writes Crouser in his afterword, which is some of the only prose in the book. When deciding that he wanted to tell the entire story with only his camera — aside from a handful of rancher profiles at the end of the photo essay — his subject choices have everything to do with the power of the images. For him, he said the story he was telling meant that everything needed to be "tactile." He shot purely old-school-style, with classic Kodak Tri-X black and white film. "It meant holding, loading, rewinding, and stashing film away in a pocket." Using film meant that every image became more deliberate, with less of the throw-away safety net that digital photography allows.
The results mean that there is an immediacy to the collection, a spontaneity that comes from shots that are not overly-processed or manipulated. Gnarled beards, dusty spurs and boots, and faded hats shaped lovingly with rough-worked hands are on display in the numerous stunning portraits, each showing a face marked by time, honest hard work, sun and a love of the land.
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Crouser captures the most significant and iconic scenes of western ranching: Life, love, birth, pain and death are all vividly evoked, as are the daily rhythms of the landscape against which Mother Nature acts out her seasonal dramas.
The livestock that are the lifeblood of the ranching business feature prominently in Crouser's storytelling, as well. Cattle, horses and dogs grace the pages, both in their most tender moments and their most fearful and trying moments. There is an austerity to the imagery, a stylistic simplicity that penetrates directly to the heart of the subjects, whether be men, women, beasts or the land upon which they all depend.
Crouser was clearly captivated by the world into which he was allowed the privilege to step with his camera, and that respectful awe is captured in every well-considered photograph. "I find it amazing and nearly unbelievable that a young rancher can step out of his or her front door in the brisk morning with snowcapped mountains ringing their view, saddle a horse, and set out to ride among the cattle, knowing that their great-great-grandparents, people they never met, had the exact same experience on the very same piece of land."