Barbara Van Cleve has been photographing ranch life since she was eleven years old. She grew up on her family’s cattle ranch near Big Timber, Montana. But she doesn’t just stand around holding a camera. More than a third of her images have been captured while she was riding a horse.
Barbara Van Cleve: I got pretty good at the business of galloping along with a bunch of horses, because when you gallop there is a split second that you are stopped at the height of the horse’s motion upward and mine upward—there’s just a split second—and I got so I could shoot right at that time.
Chérie Newman: Now 81 years old, Van Cleve is still riding and photographing. And the University of New Mexico has just published a new collection of her images that includes a foreword written by Tim Cahill. The title of the book is Pure Quill. In the vernacular of the West, the term pure quill means “authentic; real, through and through.” An apt term for Van Cleve, who uses every bit of ranch life in her images.
BVC: To me, dust, rain, snow, fog, or mist… All of those things are really quite lovely atmospheric things that I like to use in my photographs because it makes them more real.
CN: Van Cleve’s father taught her how to see land and sky where they lived and worked.
BVC: I spent a lot of time with Dad, outside, working, riding. I remember I was fairly small and I might be whining around because it was really, really cold and I was miserable or hungry. And he would say to me, Listen, Red. I gotta have your help out here. And he said, You might as well see the beauty in it and get past being uncomfortable. And so he taught me to see the mirages you could see in January down on the low country. He taught me to see the dancing light of the frost haze. In the mornings he’d say, Think of it as frozen cloud, kid. And I remember riding up over the divide between Big Timber Creek and Sweetgrass Creek. And I’ve been over there a lot, but it was totally socked in with fog. And it was very disorienting to me and I said something to Dad about it and he said, Think about it as the Highlands of Scotland, girl. And so he transported me to other places. He taught me to see beauty.
CN: For more than 45 years, Van Cleve spent part of each year teaching and taking photographs in Nevada, Missouri, Chicago, New Orleans, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. But she always came home in June.
BVC: I was always back at the ranch in the summers.
CN: Ven Cleve began digitizing her photographs and learned to use Photoshop in 2002, and switched from film to a digital camera in 2004—when she was 59 years old—the same year she returned to Montana full-time.
BVC: When I moved back to Big Timber, the house was on a septic system. And I cannot, in good conscience, put those kind of chemicals into a septic system, which goes into a drain-field, which then ultimately percolates down into the ground water. I think it’s irresponsible. Not that I’m any paragon of virtue, for sure, but I just don’t believe in doing it. And the digital was available.
CN: Not only did Barbara Van Cleve learn to use a digital camera and Photoshop later in life, she continues to capture photographs from the back of a horse in her eighties. She still teaches, too, showing people how to create excellent images with their smart phones — using the latest apps.
BVC: They always say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The heck you can’t. I’m a good example of it. It just takes a lot more time [laughing].