Dylan Coulter's The Last Cowboys


07 Sunday 07th August 2011

American photographer Dylan Coulter has an impressive portfolio, with a multitude of billboard and magazine covers to his name and Adidas, Nike and T-Mobile (among others) as employers, Dylan’s become an established name in photography. But it’s Dylan’s personal projects and more specifically his latest one, The Last Cowboys, in which he documents his great aunts and uncles on their ranch, which caught our eye. We decided to chat to Dylan about his feelings towards digital photography and how his ideal subject would be rapper Jay-Z - who knew?   


Your series The Last Cowboys involve your family as your subject matter, what was the drive behind it?

The initial inspiration for the project was to learn more about my relatives that had been raising cattle for several generations in a remote part of the United States. It was a unique opportunity to document a way of life that was once common in the Western United States, but now rapidly disappearing. The lives of my family shed light on a bigger story of the tremendous cultural and economic shifts that have happened in the United States in a shockingly short period of time. 

Everyone I photographed for the project were relatives from my mother's side of the family. The series focuses on my grandfather's three brothers and their spouses who carried on a family ranching business started by their father (my great grandfather) in the Hells Canyon area, primarily in Wallowa County, Oregon, USA. All three brothers are in their eighties and nineties now. One great uncle, Biden Tippett, still actively ranches and is on a horse several times a week. The other two great uncles are retired. Poignantly to me, only one of their children continues on in the business. The economics of the ranching industry have changed and it's not nearly as lucrative a career path as it once was. Not to mention the physical demands and the requirement of living a rural existence. 

What’s it like photographing members of your family?

Initially there was some reticence by my great uncles and aunts to participate, in that sitting for portraits is a bit out their day to day routine, but since I was family they agreed to allow me to photograph them. I knew I had been given a unique opportunity that an outsider wouldn’t have had, which added a certain reverence to the project.

Did you discover any hidden family history whilst working on the project?

I'm not certain it was hidden to my mother's generation - she spent her earliest days on a remote ranch in Hells Canyon most easily accessible by horse and river boat - but it certainly was to me. Overall, I was impressed at how different and challenging ranching is as a way of life. Specifically, I learned much more about my great grandfather, who started ranching in 1903 at the age of 16 with only eight cows. By the 1950s, at the height of his cattle operation, he owned nine ranches and over 19,000 acres. By all accounts, he was a big personality and loved what he did.

How did you get into photography? What was the first photograph you took?

Sadly, I don't remember the very first photo I took, but the early ones of consequence were taken with my grandfather's old Canon around the age 13. It was a fantastic camera, completely manual. I was hooked from that point on. The second revelation came in college when I took a photojournalism class and developed my first print. Seeing the print come to life was remarkable. I didn't set on photography as a career though until a number of years after college. I was an advertising and design art director directly out of school.

What or who is your favourite, most interesting subject to photograph?

Generally, people are the most interesting subject matter to me, be it an environmental or studio portrait. Perhaps it's my training as an art director, but I'm often motivated by the concept first - the visual story - which often translates into a myriad of subject matter. Early in my photography career I was most drawn to sport and athletes and spent much of my time towards that end. While interest continues today, I've certainly broadened the subject matter I photograph. For example, another recent personal project entitled In the Nineties: Portraits of a Certain Age is an ongoing portrait series of people over the age of ninety and an exploration of aging in a time that people are living longer in increasingly vital ways.

Nan Goldin recently said ‘digital has devalued photography’, what are your thoughts on this? Do you ever like to revert to traditional methods in your work?

I started my career on the cusp of digital photography. The first couple of years I shot entirely with film and then, like many photographers was sort of pushed into digital, kicking and screaming. There's was a period of time where I had nothing but disdain for it, but I'm now completely comfortable with digital and find the positives far outweigh the drawbacks. I am, though, thankful that I came up in the time of film because I very much identify with a film aesthetic and also, the mindset of it. I very rarely shoot film these days, but I do often reference film when I'm developing photos. In many ways, I'm a film photographer that shoots digital.

What makes a good photograph?

For me, it's a completely visceral and immediate response, be it looking at a photo I took or the work of others. I know certain technical and process related considerations that can help me create the right conditions for taking a good photograph, but I, of course, don't have an infallible formula. That would be awful if serendipity and the wonder of creation were absent.

Is there a person/subject/place that you would like to work on but have not yet had the chance?

I would like to photograph people in positions of power, such as heads of state. I was a political science major in college and recently have had an increasing urge to explore that realm. Separately, and in a different direction, I'd also like to take Jay-Z's portrait. He's been on my list from day one.

What new projects do you have in the pipeline?

Well, I have a number of commercial projects shooting soon that I'm looking forward too. I'd love to see The Last Cowboys in a gallery setting and I'm exploring options in regards to that. In terms of new personal projects, I'm preparing to undertake the second portion of In the Nineties. Lastly, I'm undertaking another personal project here in New York, as well as developing my first short film project which we hope to begin shooting in the fall.

To see more of Dylan Coulter's work visit his website here.

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