The horse and his girl
Western ranch women have been a special focus for photographer Barbara Van Cleve for decades. She has been one of them since she was a kid, but she expanded her domain with a master’s in English literature and a lifelong immersion in photography. Her new book, Pure Quill: Photographs by Barbara Van Cleve (Fresco Books), features stunning images of working ranchers and range-riders backed by Montana’s Crazy Mountain range, as well as shots taken in Nova Scotia and Mexico. Andrew Smith Gallery shows her new work in an exhibition from Nov. 18 through Jan. 14, 2017. On the cover is her 1996 image Horse Whispering: Carol, A Woman’s Touch.
“Just give me my horse and saddle, some great open country, cattle, and working cattle people, and I’ll do my work quietly, in all conditions, from pure perfection to rain, mud, dust, and freezing blizzards.” — Barbara Van Cleve
A cowboy caught mid-air on the journey from a bucking bronco to the ground. Details of a spurred boot in the stirrup, of a bare leg against a horse’s side, and of rope quick-tied on a saddle horn. Stetson-topped women working barbed wire, cooking, tying a calf’s feet, nursing a baby, and running horses. These images of people, featured in Pure Quill: Photographs by Barbara Van Cleve (Fresco Books), share space with views of big, stirring landscapes, some peppered with horses or herds of cattle. “Van Cleve has often observed that not only is she inspired by land, she revels in being ‘a tiny speck’ in the wideopen Montana landscape,” author Susan Hallsten McGarry writes in the book’s text. Two of the gorgeous landscape photos are Early Summer Evening: Mares and Foals and A Natural Design: Symmetry (both from 2011). For the latter, Van Cleve was photographing a neighbor’s horses in exchange for some tables. “I went out there three different times in the summer, looking for good clouds and good light,” she told Pasatiempo. “In the case of Early Summer Evening, I was just fortunate to be there at that time with the cloud formations and the shafts of light coming down from behind the peaks. At first the mares were very protective of the foals, but eventually they were used to me being around.” Horse Whispering: Carol. A Woman’s Touch (1996) shows the photographer’s youngest sister and their stallion, Sam Hill. “He was a blue roan, a lovely horse,” Van Cleve said, “and sired an awful lot of beautifully dispositioned horses. That day we were there just looking at the mares and foals, and Sammy was lying down. He wasn’t interested in getting up, so Carol went over to him, and I liked the way his eyes and ears were with regard to her.”
One of the earlier photos in the book is North Cape: Gathering Irish Moss (1977). After receiving a grant from the Lilly Foundation at Mundelein College, Chicago, where she was teaching, Van Cleve spent a month traveling and photographing in Canada’s Maritime Provinces. “Being a landlubber, I was so intrigued with all the activities and the way people were involved in oyster farming and other things there. There was quite a cliff, but I photographed them gathering moss. I was intrigued by the line of them working the edge of these cliffs and driving the horses into the surf.”
Pure Quill — that’s big-country ranch talk for “authentic; real, through and through” — includes photographs of Van Cleve from the time she was a little girl; a portrait of her in about 1963, when she was the youngest dean of women in the country at DePaul University in Chicago; photos of her with horses Joven, Trill, Whist! and Payá; and images of her racing and running horses. Her intimate knowledge of that animal began at age three; by ten she was helping break and halter colts, rounding up cattle, and roping and branding calves.
During the 1940s and 1950s she competed in local rodeos and got her bachelor’s degree in social studies with a minor in English from Duchesne College in Omaha in 1958. In 1963, she earned a master’s degree in English literature with a focus on Victorian poetry from Northwestern University. The following year she purchased a ranch from her grandfather and renamed it the Bar B.
Before moving back to the Bar B year-round in 2004, Van Cleve spent 25 winters in Santa Fe, where she started out converting a chicken coop into a darkroom and office. “I had been a college professor in Chicago and a dean of women, but I was always making photographs, and I knew Santa Fe was the place to go.” Van Cleve became good friends with Paul Caponigro and was also acquainted with Anne Noggle. “She was a kick. I knew Anne, and she had the greatest sense of humor but was very serious about
her photography.” Other photography luminaries in the Santa Fe area included Laura Gilpin (whom Van Cleve regrets never having met), Eliot Porter, Van Deren Coke, and Beaumont Newhall. “It was the place to be with important people in fine-art photography to find out if I had any real ability. I had such a passion for photography.”
Van Cleve’s first camera was a Brownie box camera; she was later given a Graflex Crown Graphic 4x5 field camera. “When I was working on this book and Susan was asking me which cameras were used for which images, I was stunned to discover how many photographs I had made with that Crown Graphic. I was very pleased with myself. I thought, ‘Well, not too bad, Barbara. You hauled that thing around on horseback — very carefully, I might add.’
“I carried a Mamiya twin-lens-reflex camera for years, and I remember one day I had left it hanging on the saddle horn. I was way up high in the mountains by a lake, and something spooked my horse, and that horse all of a sudden went bucking across these rocks, and of course the camera came off. The only thing that happened to it was that the flip-up hood on top was bent, but I thought to myself, ‘OK, no more just hanging the camera on the saddle horn.’ ”
One of the more interesting topics in Hallsten McGarry’s detailed text has to do with Van Cleve’s technique of taking photographs from the back of a moving animal. Accomplished at both riding and camera work, she said she doesn’t miss having to change film on horseback — because about 12 years ago, she made the switch to digital photography.
Above, Barbara Van Cleve: Early Summer Evening: Mares and Foals, 2011; top right, Van Cleve on Joven, 2013, photo Eleanor McCulley; all images courtesy Fresco Books