From the desert to New York to Munich

I left Los Angeles on the 8th of September, flew to New York and then to Germany; relearning my way around and getting settled in. I’m here to support a friend who is caring for her aging mother and I’ll stay in Munich for 5 more weeks working on my language skills. I love being here. I love the people, the Architecture, the language, and I love some of the foods but not everything.
Today, I went to a birthday party and the food was extraordinary. What a treat.

Cowboys and cattle

Johnson Valley

_mg_5563 (Hilary Sloane)

Thursday, June 30, 2011

This is Billy Mitchell, rancher, father, husband, grandfather and cowboy. He lives a 19th century life in a 21st century world; still maintains a cattle ranch the way his grandfather did and struggles everyday as he watches the life he knows change and disappear.  I met Billy while working on a personal documentary project about small town America and he immediately opened himself to my requests and questions about his life. Shortly after our first meeting Billy invited me to his Ranch: 29,000 acres of grazing land in the Mohave Desert, western San Bernardino County, California. I went the first time to photograph the ranch and to interview Billy and immediately realized that there was more here than cowboy. What I found was a sensitive, intelligent, acutely aware family man caught between the old and the new. His ranch, a lifelong dream of his is becoming more difficult to maintain. Billy spoke openly and candidly about his life, the ranch, environmental restrictions that were being placed on Ranchers and his love of place and profession. It is getting harder and harder for the cowboy and small rancher to keep ranches with increased environmental restraints, sluggish economy and loss of open grazing land.

I am here to observe and photograph. I will post the photos on this site along with whatever knowledge I gain while working on this story about cowboys and the bigger documentary work – Life in Small Town America. Billy and men and woman like him, for me, are the heart and soul of America and the heart and soul of my documentary piece.

I was invited back to the ranch again to photograph a branding. The event took place over three days starting on Thursday and ending Saturday. Family, friends and neighbors came from all over to support and participate. When I arrived Saturday morning there were close to fifty people – an extended family in trucks, on foot, on horseback – all supporting, observing and participating, along with thirty odd calves, bulls and steer.  I arrived at 11:00 but their day began early in the morning and ended late afternoon with a prayer and barbecue.

With camera in hand I found myself right in the middle of the activity getting closer and closer to both calf and cowhand until one of the cowboys, usually Billy would gently call me out of potential danger and send me scurrying to a safe area.  As I now spread the photos out around me I see a story unfolding about the west, about family, about cowboys and about the relationship between people, animals and the land. I asked one of the men at the end of the branding if cowboys were spiritual or religious.  “You can’t get up in the morning, look out there,” he said as he waived his hands over an open, expansive, desert landscape, “and not think there is a Divine Creator.”

This story has just begun for me and I will post the pictures as a way of sharing and documenting a lifestyle that many of us never have a chance to experience outside of movies and books. I have personally been deeply touched by the generosity of the people I am meeting and the unique beauty of this section of the United States.