Art: Home On The Range

On a breezy, sunny July afternoon on her family ranch in Montana, Barbara Van Cleve moves across a green pasture with the concentration of a big-game hunter. Occasionally standing quietly or crouching in the grass so that she can observe her prey, she carries in hand her favorite tool for these outings: a Nikon D2X with a zoom lens. A two-day-old colt with a white circle on its face prances, rears, and bucks in front of her, and Van Cleve lifts her camera to capture the theatrics. “He’s feeling good,” she says. “Maybe the flies are bothering him. He has a lot going on.”

Van Cleve, a renowned photographer of Western ranch life, is working on her latest project on the interactions of mares, colts, and stallions. Whether she is aiming her lens at newborn colts with peach-fuzz muzzles and large, dark-rimmed eyes, or a 20-year-old mare that will be put down after its milk dries, or cowboys driving horse herds against Montana’s big sky, Van Cleve captures with her photography the birth-to-death rhythms of ranch life. Her images, most of which she shoots in black and white, appear in the permanent collections of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, and other Western museums. Van Cleve also was the featured artist at the 2005 Coors Western Art Exhibit & Sale at the National Western Stock Show, becoming the first photographer and the first woman to receive the honor. (The 2006 exhibit takes place in Denver from January 7 through 22.)

Van Cleve’s images stand apart from the herd of romanticized Western photography precisely because of her genuine ranch background, which she characterizes as “pure quill,” a Montana colloquialism that means the real McCoy. The artist (she declines to give her age) is the daughter of Spike Van Cleve, who maintained the family’s 88,000-acre Montana ranch, which was established in 1880 at the foot of the Crazy Mountains near Bozeman, Mont., and now is owned and worked by 18 of her family members. Van Cleve began working in the saddle at age 6, helping her father with the cattle and horses. He passed away 23 years ago, but she remembers fondly how he fired her imagination while she tended to her chores. “He taught me to think,” she says, recalling that if she complained about the cold, he would say, “Look, somebody lost all those diamonds—look at them in the snow.”

Her parents set her on her life’s course at age 11 with a Christmas gift of a Brownie box camera and a home developing kit. Through the 25 winters she spent as a Chicago-area English literature professor, she continued to photograph, selling her work and eventually launching her own stock agency. Van Cleve began devoting herself to her craft full-time in 1985, after she approached Santa Fe’s Andrew Smith Gallery with her 30-by-40-inch silver gelatin photographs. Gallery curator Liz Kay recalls that she had never seen works so large and with such an unvarnished look at ranch life. “It’s a bit grittier,” Kay says of Van Cleve’s photography. “She loves this life that she grew up [in], and she understands both its light and shadow. She wants to share it with people who have a distorted image of life on Western ranches.”

Barbara Van Cleve,
406.932.4161,
www.barbaravancleve.com

Photo by Drew Phillips
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