The Real Lives of 21st-Century Cowboys

Behold
The Photo Blog
Feb. 6 2014 11:04 AM

The Real Lives of 21st-Century Cowboys

Peter_Byrne_02
Haythorn Ranch, Nebraska, 2003

Peter Byrne

Today's cowboys live in the shadow of myth, but their lifestyle has evolved a great deal over the years. British photographer Peter Byrne became interested in documenting contemporary cowboy culture after visiting a ranch in Texas on a road trip. The photos from his series “Riding the Line,” taken during the course of a year at 45 ranches in 12 states, offer a window into a storied but often misunderstood world. “I didn't want to produce a series of stereotyped images similar to those we often see of cowboys in coffee-table books and magazines. I wanted to try and get a bit deeper and show a little more reality—not really to debunk the myths, [but to] just avoid them,” Byrne said via email.

Byrne stayed in his 1970 VW camper on each ranch from a couple of days to a few weeks in order to document a cowboy’s complete cycle of work. While his subjects were happy to be photographed, Byrne was careful to stay out of their way during the workday and to earn their respect. To that end, Byrne learned how to ride a horse and researched cowboy history and working practices, which he said was a great help in his immersion. “Generally, though, few words were spoken during the working day. Once work was over we interacted extremely well. They wanted to know about my life in the U.K. as much as I wanted to know about theirs,” Byrne said.

Peter_Byrne_04
Quien Sabe Ranch, Texas, 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_05
James Wayne Dyer at the Minnetoka Trading Post, Winslow, Ariz., 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_15
Eliezer Carbajal, De Long Ranch, Nevada, 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_12
Ryan Oland, Babbitt Ranch, Ariz., 2003

Peter Byrne

Byrne was especially curious about the cowboys’ relationship to the land they inhabit and maintain. “There is no doubt that a great deal of the landscape in the American West is truly magnificent. It is unimaginably big and literally goes on for as far as the eye can see, with no signs of urbanization, no towns or cityscapes on the horizon, just mile upon mile of sagebrush or mesquite trees with a smattering of mountain range in the distance,” Byrne said. “There is a great sense of absolute peace and solitude when you are immersed in this land, and it's impossible not to be affected by it. I'm sure this has a great impact on those who live and work on it,” Byrne said.

Advertisement

Although a lot of Byrne’s images emphasize this quiet expanse, other photos in his series are bloody and violent. “It's always hard to see animals suffer, and during the project I witnessed and photographed a few incidents which left me slightly uncomfortable. It would have been easy to leave those images out of my final edit. However, it's important for me to try to present an accurate portrayal of any situation I photograph and not a whitewashed version of events,” Byrne said.

Byrne’s experience attuned him to the hard labor, long hours, and dangers that cowboys endure on the job. It also showed him how cowboy life has changed. But looking at his photos of great open plains and big skies show that some things about the cowboy aesthetic are eternal. “This landscape fascinates me, and in some ways it's the one part of cowboy life which has remained constant throughout its history. It provides us with the perfect backdrop and in many ways is where the real myth of the cowboy still holds true,” he said.

Peter_Byrne_09
Cowboys kill an injured calf by cutting its throat, Padlock Ranch, Wyo., 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_01
Randal Gates breaking in a colt, JA Ranch, Texas, 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_06
Carcass of a stillborn calf whose pelt was used as graft, Hamilton Ranch, Montana, 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_03
Brad Selover, IL Ranch, Nevada, 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_07
Los Corralitos Ranch, Texas, 2003

Peter Byrne

Peter_Byrne_13
Breaking in a colt, N3 Ranch, California, 2003

Peter Byrne

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

One of Putin’s Favorite Oligarchs Wants to Start an Orthodox Christian Fox News

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

Trending News Channel
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 20 2014 1:50 PM Why We Shouldn’t Be Too Sure About the Supposed Deal to Return the Abducted Nigerian Schoolgirls
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 20 2014 7:23 PM Chipotle’s Magical Burrito Empire Keeps Growing, Might Be Slowing
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 20 2014 3:12 PM Terror Next Door Prudie advises a letter writer whose husband is dangerously, violently obsessed with the neighbors.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 1:10 PM Women Are Still Losing Jobs for Getting Pregnant
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 9:13 PM The Smart, Talented, and Utterly Hilarious Leslie Jones Is SNL’s Newest Cast Member
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 20 2014 4:59 PM Canadian Town Cancels Outdoor Halloween Because Polar Bears
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Oct. 20 2014 11:46 AM Is Anybody Watching My Do-Gooding? The difference between being a hero and being an altruist.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.