Gunslinger – A Western Illustration

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This is an older painting that only a small number of my cohort have correctly identified.
I never had much of an appreciation for the Western genre of film-making. My father was raised in an era in which westerns were incredibly popular, and he tried to share his love for ‘Have Gun, Will Travel,’ ‘Gunsmoke,’ and some of the old John Wayne classics like ‘The Cowboys.’

Admittedly, I liked ‘The Cowboys,’ but there was always something about the genre that never really gripped me.
Well, all things in good time, I suppose.

I pretty-much accidentally rented disc one, season one of ‘Deadwood’ from Hollywood Video, back in the day when Hollywood Video and Blockbuster still existed. At the time, rental houses were just starting to feel the strain that Netflix had been putting on the rental industry, and Redbox was just around the corner. I had a cheap-as-dirt membership that allowed me to have any three movies I wanted for any amount of time I desired. Derelict that I was, I would pick up three discs on my way home from work, rip the content, and then swap them out for three more the next day; this was before the whole RealDVD debacle and I was, for that brief window of time, actually ripping the content legally (read about it here).

This unchained freedom to stockpile media led to me watching a lot of content I probably would have passed over otherwise, including almost all Westers. But I devoured the Sergio Leone films, ‘Shane,’ ‘Unforgiven,’ ‘3:10 To Yuma,’ and dozens of others. And when I found ‘Deadwood,’ it was all over. I was astonished by the writing, the set design, the costuming, the music and texture and magnitude of the whole thing.

And I started making illustrations with a western theme, occasionally hybridizing the theme with Dia de los Muertos imagery – skeleton cowboys, sugar skulls, and the like. The illustration above is inspired by a lesser-known Western that captured my attention a few years ago – let me know if you can tell what it’s from in the comments!

Have a great day, everybody!
-joe

The Wounded Cowboy

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This is one of those old illustrations that sat, untouched, for years at a time. I’d eventually get around to it, do a little bit of work on it, get discouraged, and set it aside for another year. Just one of those projects that, at the very beginning I thought had some promise and I eventually lost my passion for.

But my passion for taking these orphaned, unfinished projects and finishing them? Definitely stronger.

Forcing myself back into this piece – inspired, as many of my illustrations are, by the cinema – I thought about the tradition of Western Films in American cinema, and how these themes have begun to resurface in movies like Logan, which intentionally and overtly borrowed from movies like Shane and The Cowboys. This piece, in fact, is a study from James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma – James Mangold also happens to be the same man who directed Logan.

This didn’t feel like work. It wasn’t a headache trying to finish it. I found a good flow and I’m glad to close the chapter. I hope you like it.

July 21, 2017 – Buckey, A Real Cowboy

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“If you haven’t fallen off a horse, then you haven’t been ridin’ long enough.”

Buckey was a real cowboy. He loved trail riding and he had a stable of horses that he took incredibly good care of. Sadly, he passed away not too long ago; I’m proud to have had the chance to ride with him and make this photograph.

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July 15, 2017 – David

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“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
“If you haven’t fallen off a horse then you haven’t been ridin’ long enough.”

Today’s portrait, for ‘Portrait Month,’ is a gentleman I met in Tombstone some years ago. David was always – and I imagine still is – a very kind and soft-spoken man with a severe gaze that betrays his gentler nature. I enjoyed our conversations, and I’ve been following him in his feature-film endeavors. He certainly looks the part.

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May 21, 2017 – Drifter

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Silver City, New Mexico is a special little town. It’s the kind of town my family would stay the night on the way from one destination to another during vacation. It’s the kind of town that begs you to get out of the car, stretch your legs, and walk around for a while, with a greasy-spoon diner and some art galleries to explore. It’s the kind of town you tell yourself “gosh, if I could only find t he excuse, I’d love to live in a place like this.”

Sadly, it is also a small town and opportunities are scarce.
Sadly, it’s the kind of town that’s easy to talk yourself out of ever moving to.

So, from time to time, I would find an excuse to spend the weekend here. A drive through the Gila National Forest with frequent stops to take photographs of the landscape and wildlife. Coffee shops and leisurely strolls downtown. I’m not sure if “The Drifter” is still there, but I’m guessing it is. I could look it up, of course, but I’d rather just find out for myself the next time I roll into town.

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May 02, 2017 – The Western

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Along the Benson Highway are several old-world motor lodges, with neon signs that date back to the 1960s and 1970s (and perhaps some even earlier than that). Not all of the old businesses survive; once the Interstate Highway system was built, the thriving motels, restaurants, and service stations (most off which were privately and family owned) began to disappear.

This here is one of the remnants. It’s a photograph I made several years ago now and I was thinking about driving back to see what kind of shape it’s in, but I’m kind of afraid that it won’t even be there anymore.

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February 27, 2017 – Rodeo Finals

Mason Clements didn’t earn Sunday’s highest score, but his aggregate put him in the number one slot for this year’s Tucson Rodeo.

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I missed last years’ rodeo. Instead, I spent the time in Kansas with my family. It’s the first rodeo I’ve missed since 2011, and I certainly don’t intend to miss any future events. I’m not a huge advocate, really, but I do find the experience interesting. I put on what a close friend once called “Joe’s Rodeo Drag,” meaning my denim and cowboy hat, and I spend the week with people that I otherwise likely wouldn’t be around.

It’s challenging to photograph, and the people who participate are hard-working, genuine people – even if we are ideologically different. This is red-state territory, and I’m pretty much a blue-state kind of guy. But I appreciate all of the stories, conversations, and casual interactions with the staff, athletes, and volunteers.

It was an exciting year at the Tucson Rodeo, and I’m thankful to report that there wasn’t a single injury this year, livestock and human competitor alike. A couple of near-misses, and a few rough tumbles, but the crowd was pleased and everybody walked away in good health.

See you next year, Tucson Rodeo. I had no idea how much I missed you until I finally found my way back.

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February 26, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

A solemn moment, before the bull-ride.

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This is the cowboy that most spectators don’t see. Behind the bucking chutes, before the event begins, there is a clutch of young men taping themselves up, stretching out, and preparing to put their health and safety on the line for prize money, fame, and accolades. It’s a dangerous sport, and it’s common to see these men taking personal moments to say a prayer, focus, psyche themselves up.

Nobody in the grandstands is aware.

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February 25, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

Ryle Smith of Oakdale, CA, earned the second highest score, 9.3 seconds, in Friday’s steer wrestling event.

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I know. Two days in a row and almost the exact same picture. But there’s something about this particular event, steer wrestling, that totally captures my imagination. And hey, let’s not be coy, the event photographs really well. There’s urgency and heat and danger and friction. The rider, if he wants to take any money home from the competition, has a five-to-ten second window in which to achieve his goal. The hazer, his partner on horseback, has to try and guide the direction of the steer. If everything works out properly, including dismounting from a horse at a fifteen-mile-per-hour gait, the cowboy still has a three-hundred pound animal to contend with.

The air is electric when these cowboys ride. I know that there are complaints of animal abuse, that images of the event appear to project violence and cruelty. I could write volumes about the truth and the misconceptions about the sport, but that isn’t what today’s post is about.

Today’s post is a frozen frame, man and beast, and the lengths we go to in order to win a prize, put our best foot forward, dominate nature, survive an attack, get dirty.

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February 24, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

Jabe Anderson III, of Dillon, MT, earning a 6.1 second time during Thursday’s steer wrestling event.

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Yesterday I found myself in familiar territory: the Tucson Rodeo. The Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

It’s bittersweet, now. It always will be, from this day until my last. I’ve spent my entire life pretty disinterested in sports and competition. The eye-liner and dreadlocks and high school were a pretty strong hint. I never had the time or the patience or the interest to learn the rules; football still confuses me, and baseball still bores me.

Several years ago, however, when I was unemployed and struggling to find work and fill the empty hours, an old college friend asked if I’d like to go to the Tucson Rodeo. He was a press photographer and said he’d fudge the facts a bit, call me his assistant, and get me a press pass. He was good like that, knowing that I was a motivated photographer with little that was going my way, few excuses to pick up my camera.

I hadn’t been to a rodeo since I was in elementary school, a field trip to the Kansas City Royal. I said ‘yes’ to my buddy, of course, even though I didn’t really feel any spark or drive to go. I knew I didn’t have any excuse not to go out and take pictures. And would you believe it? The fish out of water – the industrial rock androgynous artist – had a really great time behind the bucking chutes, smelling the livestock, watching the men and women riding beautiful, giant, muscled horses. It got into me, and it has never left.

For several years, my friend William and I, regardless of what was going on in our lives, found each other at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds. We photographed beside one another, and we huddled over our computers at the end of the day, flasks of whiskey or shared pitchers of beer at Danny’s Lounge, combing through all the images and critiquing one-another’s work.

Sports photography is radically different than any other kind of photography I was ever familiar with. Everything happens so incredibly quickly. You have to be focused. You have to try and anticipate what’s going to happen next. And you never walk away feeling like you did the best job; you always feel like you could have done it better. That’s good for a photographer. It’s good for an artist. It’s good to be in situations that challenge you.

My friend shot himself a couple of years ago. My best friend. He left his friends, his family, and his wife behind. This is my second rodeo without him. I almost don’t feel like going out and doing it anymore, except for this strange sense that I’m reconnecting with him every time I put on my cowboy boots and feel the crunch of dirt beneath my feet in the arena. All of the other people in the press trailer knew him, too, so we tell stories and reinforce our memories of him, our love for him.

It’s more than just cowboys and horses for me now.

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