Books

Still: Cowboys at the Start of the 21st Century

D.M. Edwards

Still
by Robb Kendrick
University of Texas Press
February 2008, 232 pages. $50.00

Robb Kendrick has a great passion for the tintype photographic process. In Still, he uses this process to document the lifestyle of authentic, modern American cowboys -- those people who actually ride horses as part of their job, working the big cattle ranches. He has spent decades driving across the United States with his darkroom in tow and the result of his travels is a gorgeous, rich feast of portraiture. These are real working persons who span a wider range of nationalities, ethnicities, genders, languages, and ages than we were ever taught by Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West. One of the cowboys even serves the photographer a meal of lamb, an unthinkable deviation in beef country! The subtle variation in costume is also well-recorded.

My beef, though, involves Kendrick's careful posing of his subjects so as to never reveal any trace of the modern era. There is a conspicuous lack of cell phones, pick up trucks, bulldozers, Ipods and other ubiquitous tools of 21st century life. We see the occasional pair of glasses, a bottle, rifle, or contacts. The feeling is hard to shake that much like a stage set, a measure of reality and authenticity were sacrificed for aesthetic reasons. A typical city-dwelling observer glancing through Still may be hard pressed to differentiate between Kendrick’s reverential documentation of reality and a bunch of modern guys trying out for a themed Ralph Lauren commercial. Sometimes, Still's photographs appear more sophisticated versions of those souvenir, sepia-toned novelty photos people bring back from vacations at the dude ranch.

The number of working cowboys is unknown, but one of the subjects in the book notes they are “kind of a dying breed”. Thus, there is a tragic feel to some of the shots, that this part of history may soon be lost entirely. Despite Kendrick’s stated efforts to capture unadorned ordinariness, the pictures do have an undeniably romantic and individualistic aura. The subjects are also almost exotic in their descriptions of the joy of being outside, being cold and hungry, or perhaps smelling something nice, as opposed to being on a couch, near a television or computer, or in an air-conditioned shopping mall.

Some of the pictures appear worn and damaged. The artist obviously knows his stuff and this begs the question of whether or not deliberate scratches and scrapes were applied to artificially distress the photographs. Perhaps the marks and imperfections occurred naturally, though, because there is no reason for Kendrick to make them look older than they really are, or to suggest to the viewer that he is a less competent technician than he is. Not to be churlish, but Kendrick’s skill in presenting the subjects in an intriguing light makes me wish that the tintype camera process were able to allow him to use his considerable technical and artistic skills to document these characters doing what they really do, in an even more realistic environment: working, not standing still.

The cowboys themselves, as revealed in their clothing, the looks in their eyes, and the descriptive essays scattered throughout the book, seem genuinely interesting people. Still makes me wonder what their modern lives are really like.



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