Personal projects – necessary to the creative. Here we start what we hope is an ongoing series exploring what engages and drives one beyond the commercial world. This is part one of a two part conversation Michael Masterson had with respected industry leaders Charlie Holland and Seth Joel.
Charlie Holland and Seth Joel have shared a long marriage and successful careers in photography. Charlie was the director of photography at Getty Images for a decade and now works as a senior archivist for a photo collection at the Autry Museum of the West in Los Angeles as well as teaching at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Seth is a noted, award-winning portrait photographer based in Los Angeles who also works in San Francisco and New York. They work together in their studio and on their personal project and passion: Ranch Raised Kids.
Michael Masterson: You’re both horse lovers. When you started shooting stock in Arizona about ten years ago you came into contact with the local cowboy culture. Tell us about that experience, how it informed Ranch Raised Kids and why you started this project.
Charlie Holland: Yes, we both ride and that’s important to Ranch Raised Kids because we can look at and talk about horses all day. We were introduced to the cowboy culture in 2009 on a location scout for a stock shoot. Molly Day, the owner of the Skull Valley Café suggested we shoot a local ranch manager, Kasey Looper and his three young children. They were shy, hesitant models but perfect little cowboys in dress, speech and manner. We met them again by chance five years later. This time all three were working at a roundup and Cole, now 13, was roping calves and dragging them to the branding fire. They implied that “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” and invited us to see them compete at the annual Cowpunchers’ Reunion rodeo in Williams. We went and we were hooked.
Michael: What is so compelling about these kids for you? How do you find them?
Charlie: How can kids who tip their hats and call you Ma’am fail to impress you? We were awestruck by their cowboying skills, their fearlessness and their work ethic. We saw boys as young as 6 that could “make a hand.” Many lived on vast remote ranches and described a lifestyle that we “civilians” assumed had disappeared along with the singing cowboys!
Finding the kids was a carefully planned yearlong process. When we applied to Art Center for a grant we had to verbalize our objectives and outline our plan of action. That was a hard but crucial process. With that grant in hand we built a website, www.ranchraisedphoto.com and printed 5×7 glossy picture cards. We pitched the project to the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association who got it immediately and put us on the cover of their magazine Cattlelog with a write-up. Then we started showing up at cattle auctions, rodeos, colt sales, county fairs, trade shows and roundups. We talked to everyone, asked questions, read books, and memorized ranch names, brands and family relationships. When one family agreed to be shot, they recommended us to another family – and that has been repeated over and over for the last 18 months.
In late 2016 we self-published a 40-page soft cover “lookbook” to use as both a thank you and an introduction. We didn’t want to be another “shoot and run” photo team. This community, and it is a much smaller community than we imagined, is wary of photographers who are seduced by the “cowboy” and glamorize the ranching culture. We realized that we were asking people to trust us not only with their kids but also the image of the ranching culture.
Michael: Your subjects seem so open in the pictures. How do you build rapport with the kids and their parents for that matter?
Charlie: With the parents we are open and honest. It’s clear we are “not from round here” so we ask a lot of questions. Our friend Amber Morin at the Arizona Farm Bureau wrote a blog about us and she said, “… they unknowingly mirror the humility, tenacity, and stick-to-itiveness of the ranch raised kids they are still photographing.” Wow! I guess that is what makes this project work. Before I interview the kids, I always ask them casually to explain something to me. That gives them the chance to be the expert and gives them confidence. I learn a lot too. A six-year-old gave me the best riding lesson I have ever had – in two sentences.
Seth: Kids are kids. Some are shy while others are extremely focused. Rapport seems to happen quickly with our ranch kids. They know I have traveled long distances to be with them. They feel comfortable working along side the adults. On the ranch they have fun doing the work that must be done and like all kids, they love the magic of photography.
All images © RanchraisedKids and reprinted with kind permission of the owners.
Next week part two, we explore process and the future of Ranch Raised Kids.