Still: Cowboys at the Start of the Twenty-First Century
by Robb Kendrick, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2008, $50.
Robb Kendrick, a sixth-generation Texan who now lives and works in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, has been photographing North American cowboys for a quarter century, the past half-dozen years using tintype, a laborious process that faded with the American frontier at the end of the 19th century. His latest collection of portraits, which evokes Edward Curtis’ period images of the West, captures buckaroos, cowpunchers and plain old cowpokes on ranches across 14 states, up into Canada and down into Mexico.
Although Kendrick may commit sins of omission (there aren’t any cars, overhead cables or satellite dishes in sight), he doesn’t romanticize his subjects, altering their dress or stance to play-act those who have gone before them. These weathered outdoorsmen and women are dressed for the hard work that still characterizes the cowboy life. Far from spoiling the effect, the few anachronisms—a modern-day basketball and hoop, designer specs— are further reminders that these are living people, our contemporaries. “Every element has a link to the past,” Kendrick observes, “a proud tradition in a far-flung culture that survives still in the midst of one of the richest and most high-tech societies in the world.” Kendrick himself isn’t above using high-tech computer software to tweak a few images, removing a speck of dust here or adding a scratch there. But he remains faithful to his subjects’ true character, from their turned-up “taco” brims and waxed moustaches to their worn chaps and drag-in-the-dust spurs.
The text in this elegant 232-page book includes sparing notes from Kendrick and quotes from the subjects in their own words. “A cowboy’s kind of a dyin’ breed,” says Justin Johnson of Texas’ Tongue River Ranch, “and we all gotta pass the good stuff on and keep raisin’ good cowboys, cause there’s just gonna be a handful of them, you know.”
Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.