Jean Laughton: My Ranching Life
How often does a fine art photographer get their work on a billboard? And how often does that large piece of photographic advertising happen to sit where you captured the work ? Photographer Jean Laughton, cowgirl and cameraslinger has a big beautiful billboard funded in part by a grant from the South Dakota Arts Council (South Dakota Art Council support is provided with funds from the State of South Dakota, through the Department of Tourism and the National Endowment for the Arts.) The billboard is on display from July 2013 – July 2014 and can be found on the South Dakota Interstate 90 East Mile Marker 76.86. She plans to swap out the image half way through the year.
What I appreciate about Jean’s work is that she is not an outsider looking in. She is a participant observer, herding cattle, working a ranch, and photographing when she can along the way. The work is genuine, grounded and truthful.
MY RANCHING LIFE BILLBOARD
I love the idea of alternative ways of exhibiting my photographs while bringing my work directly to the public. I am so inspired by the rear screen projections and fake environments of classic films – as well as photographs and painted backdrops of an environment photographed within that actual environment. That invisible transition between the real and constructed. So, after years of driving by empty billboards and old abandoned drive in movie screens, I just had to display one of MY RANCHING LIFE panorama photographs of the West, giant-sized, within the environment of the West. Although my photographs are of real South Dakota ranching and cowboying scenes, the black and white cinematic photographs set against the full color Great Plains sky give a nice nostalgic drive in movie feel. What better setting for a document of a life set on what feels and looks like a grand western movie set – complete with a full cast of cowboys. Instead of waiting for an exhibition opportunity, I figured why not just forge my own path. With the help of a project grant from the South Dakota Arts Council I am able to display MY RANCHING LIFE photographs under the vast South Dakota sky within the region where the photograph was captured. I hope the billboard will give passersby and inside ‘view from the saddle’ of family ranching and cowboy life that still exist today in western South Dakota. Perhaps transporting them visually to horseback.
MY RANCHING LIFE
Since 2003, I have been living a life within what seems like a western movie – cowboying and photographing ranch work from horseback on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch south of Belvidere, South Dakota.
A native Iowan, I left sixteen years of New York City life behind me and moved to the remote Badlands town of Interior, South Dakota (pop 69). Following the serendipitous path of my photography, with plans to continue my commitment to photograph the West. And as with many who had gone West before me – in search of authenticity and adventure.
I got an unexpected adventure of a lifetime shortly after, when my photography led me to the Lyle O’Bryan’s Quarter Circle XL Ranch. Where I was given the opportunity to jump on a green horse and begin work as a novice ranch hand. This is when my life and photography changed drastically – prompting the start of my long term photographic series “My Ranching Life”. Transitioning from portraiture against painted backdrops to documentation from horseback and from spectator to cowboy. I had no idea I would become a rancher and still be in it ten years later – working alongside an old time cowboy the entire time. Learning everything from roping, working cattle, training horses and so very much more.
Working on the ranch is like stepping back in time onto a movie studio backlot. I get into my ‘costume’ of chaps, spurs, hat and boots – and ride my Pony onto the beautiful land into one long glorious scene surrounded by a cast of authentically outfitted cowboys, cattle and horses. Living, simultaneously, in a real and imagined West – drifting from past to present.
The Quarter Circle XL Ranch and the ten nearby ranches we ‘neighbor’ with are rich with western heritage – with all cattle work done on horseback. This creates quite the historical visual against the backdrop of endless land and cyclorama sky. I photograph these scenes quickly from horseback, while cowboying, with a Noblex 120 swing lens panoramic camera I carry in my saddlebags. The Noblex gives me a medium format negative suitable for large-scale printing. The panoramic format lends a cinematic quality while also conveying the vastness of the landscape. The black and white film helps reverse time.
My Ranching Life panoramas are a visual diary of the cinematic moments happening before me. I hope this insider perspective conveys the beauty and timelessness of present day ranching. With photographs that, at first glance, could have been taken during another time – depicting a profession that has changed little over the past century.
I continue to ranch and photograph and am ever grateful to Lyle O’Bryan for being my cowboy mentor as I transition into taking over more of the daily running of the ranch. It has been quite the adventure so far.
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