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For the week of October 11 through 17, 2000

Documenting the West

David Stoecklein’s photography of ‘The California Cowboy’

"Cowboys represent freedom and open space. More than any other profession, cowboys exemplify freedom."

David Stoecklein, photographer

Express Arts Editor

There is a dramatic difference in effect between a pretty picture and a photograph that captures a subject’s character and soul; in that gap is where the subtlety of art lies.

David Stoecklein, who has spent his life photographing the West and the people who inhabit it, is an artist who has bridged that gap. With the October publishing of his ninth coffee-table book, The California Cowboy: In the Land of the Vaquero, Stoecklein explores a land and culture as diverse as it is big. He recently spoke with a reporter about the book and his experiences making it.

The 252-page book is a rich portrait of a colorful lifestyle. Stoecklein has organized the book by eight geographic regions with photo essays on 30 ranches. He chose, as he said, "historic ranches operated in the true Western tradition."

California Cowboy is Stoecklein’s fourth book in a series on cowboys of the West. His goal is to do one for each state of the West. "As the West is fading, I feel a need to document it as it is today," he said.

The West, he said, will "never be without cowboys—it is still the best way to raise and manage cattle." But, he added, "…the big ranches of California are being broken up for real-estate development. The big cities are encroaching on them, and the owners are selling off parts…It is a difficult business anyway…and the tax laws are not conducive to holding on to a ranch and then passing it on to the next generation."

Interspersed throughout the book are essays on related subjects by journalist Henry Schacht and publicist Shirl Woodson. Schacht opens the book with an extensive history of the California cowboy, beginning with the establishment of cattle raising techniques by the Spanish in New Spain (Mexico) and the first cattle drive north to San Diego by Don Gaspar de Portola.

Other essays include a look at the California Spade (horse) bit, the Salinas rodeo, profiles of cowboys and the practice of working cattle with cow dogs. As an introduction to each section, Stoecklein has also included information about each region. He describes the geography, climate, type of feed, rainfall and other relevant features of the areas.

Stoecklein, who owns a ranch in Mackay, Idaho, has been photographing cowboys and livestock for 15 years. He said he has devoted a lot of time to learning about the West, horses and how cowboys do things. That experience proved to be valuable in gaining the trust of his subjects.

Stoecklein relayed how, in unveiling his book at a recent Western show in Reno, Nev., he was approached by an old cowboy. The man told Stoecklein that, "a lot of photographers come by to photograph our ranch. You look at their work and it is pretty good, but they don’t understand our lives. You understand our lives. You captured the West the way it is and ought to be."

The cowboy culture has always had a popular appeal. Some of that is due to what Stoecklein referred to as the colorful lifestyle. But more importantly, he said, "Cowboys represent freedom and open space. More than any other profession, cowboys exemplify freedom."

And it is apparent from talking to Stoecklein that he connects on a personal level with this world. Stoecklein, who has an extensive business shooting advertisements, publishing prints, calendars and postcards, loves to head out to the ranches and get to know the people there. "It is the most relaxing, enjoyable work I do," he said.

Though he lived in California for a few years in the early 70s, Stoecklein was again impressed with the state. He explained that there are "many people who show disrespect to California, but more people are moving in than moving out. There is a reason for that—the land is beautiful and more diverse than any other state. Also, the people are wonderful. I easily could have made this book a thousand pages."

Stoecklein sub-titled his book In the Land of the Vaquero, because "the California cowboy is immersed in history that the other states don’t have. There is a pride of horsemanship, of the tack and equipment, that surpasses all others." The California cowboys are really descendants of the Spanish cowboys who, Stoecklein said, are the "great horsemen of the world."

Like the subjects of his book, Stoecklein works hard at his profession. He is currently finishing up a book on paint horses and working on Nevada and Colorado cowboy books. Other projects in various forms of completion include a book on cow dogs and two other cowboy books on Hawaii and Florida.

The California Cowboy will be available Oct. 20 at the following local stores: Chapter One, Silver Creek Outfitters, Jane’s and Headwaters in Ketchum; Ex Libris and the Sun Valley Gift Shop in Sun Valley; and Read All About It in Hailey.


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Copyright 2000 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.