Adam Jahiel: The Last Cowboy
December 5, 2012
The Great Basin, an inhospitable stretch of land that sits between Reno, Nevada, on the west, and Utah’s Salt Lake City on the east, is often described as dry, barren, and woefully desolate. But for those who’ve spent any significant time in this rugged region (and they are few and far between), the basin is alive and kicking, even if it doesn’t always appear to be. The basin’s wildlife—pronghorns, jackrabbits and coyotes—share this harsh environment with a handful of scrappy, hardworking cowboys. Adam Jahiel has been photographing these mythical men for 22 years now, and will continue to do so until he’s photographed the proverbial “last cowboy.” Jahiel, originally from California and now residing in Wyoming, has worked in the motion picture industry on a variety of projects, from major films to HBO comedy specials. In addition, he was the photographer for the ground-breaking French-American 1987 Titanic expedition. His images have appeared in numerous publications, including Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, National Geographic and The Day in a Life of book series.
Cowboy Code and Culture
“The Last Cowboy” project began as the result of a quirky editorial job that required Jahiel to photograph a celebrated rodeo bull named Pacific Bell that resided on a ranch on the California/Nevada border. “The nickel dropped,” says Jahiel, who took one look around the ranch and realized he’d met his calling. “[The shoot] resonated with me on a personal level. I didn’t have any intentions of doing anything more with it, I just wanted to capture that one assignment [of the bull] and have fun shooting and printing it.” But it became an addiction and little by little, he says, he spread his wings and photographed at various ranches throughout the west. “The whole cowboy culture varies greatly from Wyoming to Nevada to Texas,” explains Jahiel, who says he wears a very different hat when he’s shooting in Nevada. “There’s something about the landscape—the sky, the empty miles of terrain—that really appeals to me.” Those same elements, he notes, don’t seem to exist for him in Wyoming or other states. “I think it’s just the emptiness,” he says. “Without Las Vegas and Reno, I think Nevada would be the least populated state in the country.”
In the summers, the cowboys live nomadic lives, traveling from cow camp to cow camp. “In Wyoming, the proximity to homes and towns [from the ranches] is more accessible. After work, it seems people can live more normal lives. But in Nevada, the cowboys are cut off from all that,” says Jahiel, who enjoys the solitude and considers it a huge luxury not to be plugged in all the time. He basically moves in and lives with the cowboys for short periods of time. “I become a part of the crew, part of the family. We ride together, eat together, camp together, and move together,” he says. “Much of the time that I spend photographing is when the cowboys are ‘out on the wagon.’ This refers to the old chuck-wagons, which have mostly disappeared. During the spring and fall especially, the cowboys set up camps for days or weeks at a time, round-up and brand calves, then move on to a different spot.” The biggest challenge that faced Jahiel—whether or not he’d be accepted by the cowboys—came early in the project. “It’s a closed, private world where outsiders are few and far between and people are a little bit leery of photographers, observers, and interlopers that want to move in with them for short periods of time. There’s some sort of code that exists,” believes Jahiel. “I promised myself I’d keep my eyes open, my mouth shut, and mind my Ps and Qs.” Thanks to his relaxed attitude, the cowboys granted him access. There were other challenges too. Throughout the years, dust was one of Jahiel’s main nemeses. “For years I would carry a little paint brush in my back pocket. As I was taking pictures and getting covered with dust and alkali, I’d try to brush off whatever was on the outside of my lens. Miraculously, my equipment, a Mamiya 6 (the square format suits me), faired incredibly well for years and years. In fact, I’m still using some of the same cameras and lenses I started with.”
The style in which Jahiel works hasn’t changed much over the years and he’s still fascinated by the same people and places. “For me, the subject often dictates the approach, and so I let it take me where it will take me. When I started out, I was shooting from the gut,” he describes, “and I’m still doing that. I’m as excited about the project now as I was in 1989. The same things appeal to me—the space, the skies, the loneliness, and the dust.” But it isn’t all about empty landscapes and unforgiving weather. Throughout the project, Jahiel has also captured numerous revealing portraits. His secret to capturing a natural portrait is his ability to blend in. “I’m a member of the fly-on-the-wall/try-your-best-to-be-invisible gang. If you watch closely enough for long enough,” he explains, “you’ll pick up on life’s patterns.” Jahiel becomes familiar with the cowboys’ personalities and habits and can anticipate situations where they’ll move or behave in a certain way. He can then move in and get the shot.
Heroes and Documentaries
The series is divided into two segments—hero and documentary. “It’s not that I divide the pictures,” explains Jahiel, “but I notice they are divided. When I started publishing and selling the work through galleries, I realized the kind of images people often wanted to put on a wall were the iconic images—what I call hero pictures. They’re kind of punchy—running and bucking horses, and iconic portraits.” His more documentary-style shots, which have historical importance, aren’t always as flashy. Instead, they often tell subtle little stories that Jahiel finds fascinating. “I love the stories and the images that have multiple stories happening at once,” he says. “It’s fun to be able to present this work in either a large show or publication because I can then include images from each category.”
When Jahiel first set his camera on cowboys over two decades ago, there was a large number of big ranch outfits in operation. As time went by, the numbers dwindled and the ranches—and cowboys—began to fade away too. “For me, that’s the sad part, although the whole disappearing cowboy scenario has been such a cliché for years.” Jahiel says today’s “cowboys” tend to be young kids that either only work in the summer or on family ranches as opposed to career cowboys from days gone by. “It looks like cowboys are fewer and fewer and younger and younger,” he reiterates. “It really has changed a lot.” Hence, Jahiel’s images will someday soon depict a lifestyle that no longer exists, and he feels pretty good about that. “As I said, my intention wasn’t to make great art or a documentary. It was a completely personal venture that after awhile, took on a life of its own. In retrospect—and I learn lots of things about myself in retrospect—it turns out I was able to capture the end of an era.”
Someday in the near future, Jahiel hopes to publish a book of the work. “I don’t know when,” says Jahiel, who admits to having an antiquated notion of what a book is (“it should be sold in a book store, published by a nice publisher and feature beautiful black-and-white reproductions”). But, “I think it will happen someday when people look at the work not as eye candy but as a slice of life.” In the meantime, he’s turned his camera toward other horse cultures. “A few years ago I got involved in a project in Kyrgyzstan, which is amazingly similar to Nevada’s Great Basin. The geology and light is so familiar; it’s really uncanny. And of course, it’s a horse culture, which is the real appeal. It’s more Wild West than you find in the U.S. these days as it’s basically untouched. When I’m there, I feel I’m putting on a similar hat to Nevada,” concludes Jahiel, “and that’s put the hook on me.”
To view more of Adam Jahiel’s work, visit www.adamjahiel.com.
Lorraine A. DarConte is a freelance writer/photographer living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared in numerous publica­tions including Rangefinder, Studio Photography & Design, Newsday and Tucson Visitors’ Guide.