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Big Sky, Little Details

Montana
by Mark Ritson August 02 2017
 

I tend to be easily overwhelmed in a new location, especially a spectacular one. The sense of wanting to match the beautiful work I may have seen of the area is powerful but unwise. Often those great images are a result of hard work, research, patience, knowing the area and subject extremely well and in some cases even many visits. It is also very easy to feel suddenly artistically lost in a grand and new place of such scale and photographic opportunity. I think this can be a result of knowing your own capability and raised expectation but faced with so much choice I feel a self-imposed burden to create. I have to calm my excitement and bring it back to the joy of the process. This takes away the panic or worry of not making the most of a visit. Instead my strategy is to plan and visualise three or four images I would most like to achieve (as a starting point) when visiting a new location, I find this facilitates my creativity rather than blindly replicating others. This leaves me with just a few details I must care about and the rest can happen as and when I am moved by a scene or moment. On arriving in big sky country, I was somewhat (surprisingly) stunned by the big sky. Of course, the clue is the name but wow I was not prepared, that sky and the quality of the light is like none I’ve seen before (that can be so easily predicted). Almost every night there is a treat in store. Although it was not on my list it certainly had my glass pointing skyward most evenings with many pleasing results with barely any effort.

My primary intent was to photograph cattle. For me it is people, wildlife, fauna, flora and also captive animals (in this case livestock, pets, working dogs and horses) that give a place personality, a sense of identity and tradition bonded to history. A location is far more than a landscape, beasts and boulders. I always strive to capture something of the mood, moment and emotion when I visit any new (to me) part or the world. In Montana it is not just the sky that is big, the mountains, the ranches, the wildlife and parks, the cowboys, cowgirls personalities and the way of life that is all rather grand scale. The history is also rich, not long but rich and diverse from the gold rush, homestead settlers, ranches and native Indians all living in and from this amazing landscape. Impressively the landscape was respected very early in its history, it gave everything to the Indians and they knew it and recognised the need to allow time for areas to replenish, something people in many parts of the world today are still in denial of. In 1872 Yellowstone (which just slightly tips into Montana) was declared not only the first National Park in the USA but the entire world, so stick that in your pipe European history snobs.

I doff my cap to US Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant for this action and in doing so decreed that the area would be preserved "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” I possibly have an odd sense of places, I think of the land, its history, then the decay and the way of life both in the past and the present which gives me a strange sense or concept of all the parts becoming a whole, almost as if an entity with its own heart beat that I am privileged to briefly witness and be among. Photography is just the medium I use to creatively record my response to this emotion, my own personal awareness or indeed madness, but it is a burning need to reflect the emotion and response back through some form of creativity. I personally think this is a normal human state but can accept any view on it. I do however think that cave walls back me up in confirming humans have always had a response to create, reflect and communicate creatively our experiences and emotions.  It intrigues me to attempt to capture the beating whole of a location through little details close to my glass. This is when I’m most excited and alive.

Decay and life are both relentless, the pursuit of my first wish list shot led me to a beautifully scented wild rose growing around and caressing a decayed and abandoned headstone. I imagined there was once a ceremony for a now long forgotten gold miner. This scene intrigued me, long abandoned but still respectfully marked as Boulder Cemetery was a feast of decay and life and with the bonus of overnight rain having gently saturated the scene.  I photographed the wild rose and the result pleased me.

But as I turned I saw a pine squirrel using a once prestigious grave boundary post, but now rotted, as a dining table which better captured the sense of decay and life in single shot. The pine squirrel was totally unmoved by my presence and I was able to use the silent electronic shutter on my Olympus OMD M1 Mkii so as to make no audible impact on this little guy’s routine of collecting pines, laying them out on his dining post and enjoying lunch. He would collect four pines and strip them bare at great speed one after the other before scurrying off for more.

I was with a cowboy called Earl who quietly observed my process and when I explained my marvel and intrigue of the relentless change in both decay and life which I personally find a bit of a leveller. Earl nailed it saying, “So stick your hand in a bucket of water, then remove it, and take a look at the impact you really had” Virtually none. Should I ever feel important I will remind myself of the wild rose, the bucket of water and the squirrel and try to enjoy my insignificant time on this incredible and delicate little planet.

So, I had my picture of the squirrel, one of the four images I intended that would capture the relentless change of both decay and life in this little part of Montana. I desperately wanted some images of cattle since this is a big part of Montana life.

The I herd I was with was Red Angus and I wanted an image I wouldn't tire of looking at. My own remit was to see all four legs, the tail, a bland sky and a Lupin flower. I didn't want to detract from the cow with an amazing sky or intense colours and the lupin was simply because Montana is awash with them and I figured it would make the difference to say “Montana” Red Angus. I also wanted it to be a gentle image with the cow staring right at me with typical curiosity and concern. Setting the 300mm f4 lens on my remarkable Benro Slim Carbon Fibre tripod the moment came together, I had set my camera up to create a less saturated image and with the sky all blown out the tail gently swayed like it knew it was playing a role in my image.

Of the four images I had conceived the third was to capture a Rodeo moment. One that conveyed these people as bred hard. And tuff they certainly are, few people would ever get on a bull let alone with any confidence that it will go well. They create an utterly amazing heart stopping spectacle which is thoroughly addictive to photograph. This was my first time at a rodeo. It will not be my last. In this image the bull was truly locked on the rider and went hard to connect with him in any way possible. This brave bull rider fully tuned to the explosive energy of the bull once he was thrown stayed close to the shoulder through an extremely fast and violent series of attempts to connect with him, an incredibly cool tactic that had me breathless throughout.

The fourth planned image was to be a large body of moving cattle conveying a feeling of the herd as one beast and with a strong sense of movement and power. This image didn't really come off, the scene did but I was not happy with the results. Instead I share a set of images which I hope are not too typical, but represent the details and moments which made me care when capturing them.

Mathews Pretty Homestead – Abandoned (occupied 1880’s through 1950’s)

Mathews Pretty Homestead – Abandoned (occupied 1880’s through 1950’s)

Classic Dodge pickup - Abandoned

Classic Dodge pickup - Abandoned

The Johnson School House – Abandoned

The Johnson School House – Abandoned

Ranch Dog

Ranch Dog

Ranch Landscape – Home to Elk and Deer

Ranch Landscape – Home to Elk and Deer

Automatic irrigation system

Automatic irrigation system

Beautiful Red Angus Calf

Beautiful Red Angus Calf

Bull rider

Bull rider

Cow Girl driving a herd of Red Angus

Cow Girl driving a herd of Red Angus

Abstract decaying wood circa 1880 homestead

Abstract decaying wood circa 1880 homestead

Working and pet dogs on the Ranch

Working and pet dogs on the Ranch

Hand moved irrigation system

Hand moved irrigation system

Red Angus

Red Angus

Grain Silo and pending storm

Grain Silo and pending storm

Wrangler

Wrangler

Field of grain

Field of grain


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