The cowboy may well be the quintessential American icon. Robb Kendrick has been photographing cowboys for twenty-five years, creating a magnificent artistic record that recalls the work of earlier photographers such as Edward S. Curtis, whose portraits of Native Americans have become classics. Kendrick even uses an early photographic process—tintype—to create one-of-a-kind photographs whose nineteenth-century appearance underscores how little twenty-first-century cowboys' ways of working and types of gear and dress have changed since the first cowboy photographs were made more than a century ago.
In Still, Robb Kendrick presents an eloquent collection of tintype cowboy photographs taken on ranches across fourteen states of the American West, as well as in British Columbia, Canada, and Coahuila, Mexico. The photographs reveal the rich variety of people who are drawn to the cowboying life—women as well as men; Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and African Americans as well as Anglos. The images also show regional variations in dress and gear, from the "taco" rolled-brim hats of Texas cowpunchers to the braided rawhide reatas of Oregon buckaroos. Marianne Wiggins, author of a recent novel about Edward S. Curtis, introduces the volume, and Jay Dusard, a photographer renowned for his cowboy images, provides the afterword. Robb Kendrick tells the backstory of the project in his photographer's notes, while also interweaving stories from the cowboys themselves among the images.
Both an evocative work of art and a masterful documentary record, Still honors the resilience of modern cowboys as they bring traditional ways of living on the land into the twenty-first century.
The cowboy icon is so fixed in our collective mind that it's easy to believe that all cowboys are alike. The chaps, the spurs, the hat shadowing a sweaty, stubbly face. But after 41,000 miles driving across North America to find cowboys in their natural setting, I can tell you that cowboys have evolved differently—in subtle and substantial ways—depending on the weather, topography, vegetation, and history of diverse regions.
The cowboy family tree starts in Mexico, where the Spanish brought their steeds and their horse skills. The Spanish word for someone who tends cows is "vaquero." The vaquero style includes flat-brimmed hats, high-cantle (seatback) saddles made of stamped leather, wide, slick saddle horns, and large, eagle-billed tapaderos (stirrup covers)—the size and shape of which suggest prehistoric leather ski boots.
Yet the best place to see this look today is not in Mexico—since ranch hands in that country now are more influenced by the style of Texas, where many have spent time—but in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and parts of Canada west of the Rockies. Many vaqueros ended up in these states, after passing through California, which was after all once part of Mexico. The cowboys in these parts are called "buckaroos, "which is a bastardization of "vaquero." Buckaroos are known as the pretty-boys of the cowboy world, though they wouldn't like to hear it put that way. The buckaroos' signature look is flat hats, chinks (short chaps with long fringe), braided rawhide reatas, horsehair mecate reins (anglicized as "McCartys"), and lots of fancy silver trimming on themselves and their horses. But the one accessory a self-respecting buckaroo would never be without is what's known as a "wild rag"—a bright silk neckerchief so large it looks as if it could easily serve as a tablecloth.
Another branch of cowboy genealogy runs through the desert southwest: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. These ranch workers are known as "cowpunchers," a name that reflects the rough, thorny terrain they work in. Cowpunchers are no-nonsense, practical, and not about show. A typical cowpuncher in Texas might favor what's known as a "taco" hat, a hat that shoots up steeply on both sides, so as not to catch tree branches or a gust of wind. In Arizona, the hat brims are curled too, but they bend more like arcing waves than sheer cliff faces. Three types of chaps predominate in cowpuncher territory—bullhide batwings, shotgun leggings, and Arizona bellbottoms—all protect against the sharp brush. Most chaps have rings where tie-down strings can be stored—for easy access when a cow's legs need to be tied off or a gate needs to be kept open.
"Cowboys," as a regional classification, are found east of the Rockies in Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Colorado, Wyoming, and much of Montana. Cowboy style is a hybrid of traditions. It's not as flashy as the buckaroo's, but definitely not as rough and practical as the cowpuncher's. These ranch hands tend to work cattle more gently than the cowpunchers because the terrain allows it.
Because ranch hands are constantly on the move, looking for work across the West, stylistic differences have migrated too. Thirty years ago, you would never have seen chinks in Texas or a taco hat in Oregon, but today the looks are more mixed, which is why in some photos you may see a whole array of headgear at one ranch—flat-brimmed, short-brimmed, taco, or a high-crowned "Gus" hat. Each cattle worker adopts his own look and usually sticks to it tenaciously. Every element is a link to the past, 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. Many cultures threatened by so-called progress can lose much in a matter of one or two generations. But cowboys—actual working cowboys, in all their manifestations—proudly and determinedly endure.
By Robb Kendrick
Robb Kendrick, a sixth-generation Texan who contributes regularly to National Geographic, focuses his efforts on in-depth projects that use historic photographic techniques such as the tintype process.
Marianne Wiggins is the author of eight novels, including The Shadow Catcher, and two collections of short stories. Her work has been nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize.
Jay Dusard has published five books of photography, including his classic The North American Cowboy: A Portrait. His work has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.