Review by Melanie Chapman •
Sometimes words fail, and in the case of reviewing Michael Crouser’s photobook Mountain Ranch, this is a good thing. A handsome collection of over 100 black and white photographs documenting the daily lives of cattle ranchers in Northwestern Colorado, Mountain Ranch is a contemporary book with a classical feel, of an environment more visceral than verbal, and could be helpful in healing some of the current misunderstandings between “Red States” and “Blue States”.
From the opening pages, Crouser welcomes the viewer into a world without artifice. You can feel the chill of a young ranch hand in fresh snowfall as the herd is guided across a wintery landscape. You will soon notice the intimate touch of a mother cow licking her calf is echoed by the hand of a rancher in a wide-open field. A skilled landscape and portrait photographer, Crouser also invites you to appreciate the details; thick mud caked onto well-worn cowboy boots, the history of generations of families ranching the same land as their ancestors etched into the deep lines on the faces of hardworking women and men. Look to the storm clouds building up on the horizon and gauge if it’s time to bring the herd in. Smell the burnt flesh of a young cow during branding, feel the sweat being wiped off the brow of a ranch hand’s forehead, test the tension of a barbed wire fence.
On one page a rider mounts his horse, seeming to enter the landscape on the opposite page to herd the cattle grazing near a stream. Another image, that of a sun-bleached bull skeleton, evokes the barren tree branches on the facing page… These are but a few examples of how Crouser’s images are complemented by a masterful book design that creates flowing interplay from one page to the next. These photographs are straightforward images of a demanding vocation, yet they dance with the fluidity of an experienced lariat.
Mountain Ranch shares an affinity with the classic documentary work of FSA photographers Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, as well as the portraiture of Paul Strand and the paintings and sculpture of renowned Western artist Frederick Remington. Especially moving is the section of the book titled Heritage; formal portraits of informal people, folks who welcomed Crouser into their unpretentious lives, accompanied by a full-page text in their own words, offering context to the dignity on each well-worn face.
Upon reading Crouser’s Afterword, one learns the inception for Mountain Ranch was a friend’s invitation to document a calving season. Up to that point, Crouser had been feeling uninspired to make new photos following the death of his mother. He credits the warmth of the ranchers who welcomed him into their lives, as well as the tangible pleasure of holding his camera up to his face once again. Thus, began a ten-year project, and in so doing it seems Crouser found a way to not only work through his own grief, but also to celebrate a culture which is itself slowly dying off.
Mountain Ranch, Michael Crouser
Photographer: Michael Crouser, born and resides in Minneapolis, MN
Publisher: University of Texas Press, Austin Texas, copyright 2017
Foreword by Gretel Ehrlich
Afterword by Michael Crouser
Hard cover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, two-color black and white printing, printed in China