Ranching, roping and riding are exhausting, smelly and dangerous, and also tactile, compelling and (on occasion) achingly beautiful.
For a person who is drawn to Western iconography, this part of Colorado is a kind of heaven.
To photographer Natalie Heller, it is artistic inspiration.
Heller grew up in Wisconsin, “with black-and-white dairy cattle. I was never in love with cows there,” she said. But something about local animals is different.
“It’s the landscape, and the Western heritage,” Heller said. “To me, cattle in this landscape are beautiful. They’re easy on the eyes.”
Heller is known for photographs of what you might call the secular holy trinity of the ranching life: cattle, cowboys and horses, during roundups, set against sprawling landscapes or in tightly-focused shots in an arena (she’s a huge fan of rodeos).
“The dust, the smoke, the smell of leather and the scent of the horses,” she writes on her website. “I find myself leaning in to take the tight shots that convey the details in the chaps and spurs, their creases and textures, well-worn leather or a weathered face … when I am behind the camera, nothing else seems to exist except what I am looking at through the lens.”
“I got a good winter shot of cattle waiting for a feed wagon,” she said of one of the images in her new show at the 610 Arts Collective in Ridgway, which is up through July. “There’s a mountain backdrop. It’s a misty, kind of storm-clearing day, and the cattle were all on a diagonal. The color of the scene, the ways the lines converged, it was a nice one.”
Heller’s work is almost as iconic as the places she shoots: Her work has been displayed in local galleries (she took top prize at last year’s Artists Alpine’s Holiday show in Ouray); her photos are on notecards at local shops from Grand Junction to Telluride.
She’s won the Cowboys & Indians magazine’s award for “Best Landscape.”
Her first book of photographs, “SWC: Southwest Colorado” (2015), published with the help of Vince Kontny, who owns Centennial Ranch, won multiple awards and sold out in two months.
And lately — in a gesture perhaps more significant than all the rest of it — her photographs have been elevated to local pride-of-place: You’ll find them above the bar at the historic Sherbino Theater.
“She captures this region so well,” said Tricia Oakland, programs director at the Sherbino and Weehawken Arts. “The beauty, the ranching, the history and tradition. Her images of mountain ranges and wildflowers are a great compliment to the theater.”
Heller’s new works at 610 Arts focus on what she’s best known for. At least four local ranches are represented in these photos: Centennial, J Bar M, Potter Ranch and Wolf Cattle Co.
“It’s a real privilege to be allowed on these ranches to take photographs of the men and women doing their work,” Heller said.
Ranch life is more than dust, and sweat and danger in these shots. It is an expression of rugged individualism: one photo, taken at morning in the sun’s glare, “is a lot of cattle and one person,” as Heller put it, “loving what he’s doing.”
Another image depicts a cattle drive from behind; Heller followed on horseback, photographing the action. There are adults and children and herding dogs here, driving dozens of cattle along a wet dirt road. There has just been rain (you can almost smell the foliage). “There are no faces,” Heller said. None are needed, and yet the message couldn’t be clearer: the ranching life is also about tight-knit bonds. It is a family affair.
Natalie Heller will be on hand at the 610 Gallery Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. through the end of the month. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. daily and by appointment (call 970-318-0150). To see more of Heller’s work, visit loneconephotography.com.