I grew up around the cattle and farming industry in California's great San Joaquin Valley and the backdrop of my youth was underappreciated until I got older and had kids of my own. The lifestyle and people I grew up around seemed to be greatly misunderstood to those that simply drove by a cattle ranch. Furthermore, most ranching or cowboy stories I've ever seen has been shot from afar, and my motto has always been, "the more uncomfortable I am, the better the photos". That said, I shot nearly this whole project while riding and working cattle (as best as I can) myself, providing a pace and perspective few will ever see; and lots of photos between the ears of horses.
Domestic cattle have been present in the New World for 500 years, and have been an important part of California’s economic and social fabric since the establishment of the first Spanish missions. By 1834, California’s missions operated a herd of beef cattle estimated at 400,000 head. Under Mexican rule, large "ranchos" were established, and cattle hides fueled the state’s economy. The Gold Rush during the 1800s brought hundreds of thousands of new citizens to the state, as well as new demand for beef. Many of today’s ranches were established prior to or just following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.
Ranchers own and/or manage approximately 38 million acres of privately and publicly owned rangelands. Most California ranches are family owned and operated, and many have been in the same family for four or five generations. The long-term success of ranching operations requires the careful stewardship of animals and the environment, often mitigating environmental problems by staying as educated as possible on the possible impact animals may be having and working closely with state universities.
Growing up around many of these ranches and those that worked them, became part of my visual lexicon. But even for me, the ranch as 'place' and the cowboy as 'person' were little understood. The word cowboy itself is shadowed in myth and oftentimes misunderstood; many see the ranches from the comfort of air conditioning as they drive to and from major cities and few really understand what it takes to raise cattle and care for the land.
I'm taking this project on, working with legendary rancher John Lacey, to dive deeper into the story to show the reality, scale and challenges of the work and stewardship of the land.