Wes Walker, an Austin-based photographer, weaves some of that old high-plains mystery into his work on American ranch life. Beautiful landscapes, deeply lived culture and majestic animals breathe together in his shots. We caught up with him to hear about how and why his photography tunes into the ranching world’s mythos and reality.
WILDSAM: How did you get started in photography, and what inspired you to start photographing ranch life?
WES WALKER: I grew up in Texas, on and off my family’s ranch–Following my grandfather around the ranch as he worked and I played, fished, rode in tractors, fed cows or fixed fences. I guess I was semi-born into it. I don’t EVEN consider myself all that country as a person, especially after having the opportunity to travel a bit for work. I just started capturing all the things I like: cows, horses, mountains and cowboy hats in the sunset silhouette. It just happened to be the stuff I fell in love with, seeing it through my camera.
WS: How do you approach capturing the essence of ranch life and the Western landscape through your photography?
WW: I just seem to lean into the way a horse stands in a field with a mountain in the background. Or how the pine trees seem to point toward heaven. It’s strange–in a world where it seems a lot of photographers are shooting what others like, I just shoot what I think looks pleasing to my eyes. [I do shoot a lot besides Western, as well.]
WS: Can you share a particularly challenging or rewarding moment that stands out to you?
WW: As y’all have probably seen, the whole world is a little obsessed with the cowboy at the moment. Ever since I heard that song “Cowboy in LA” by LANY a couple of years ago, I knew it was the beginning of a cultural shift. People are leaning Western–not just clothes and hats and boots, but the desire for a simpler, quieter life, and to see work happen from their own two hands. Basically, the world is shifting more Western, not Western shifting the world.
WS: What do you love about ranch life or outdoor life?
WW: Being on a ranch, or on the back of a horse, gives you the same feeling as being in a national park. In a national park, nothing else outside the park exists. Your phone typically doesn’t work. There’s beauty at every turn, music playing in the car, hikes through the woods. Those memories just seem more core than others. The crud and responsibilities of the world and life just don’t seem to exist. That’s the feeling I get with Western and ranch life.
WS: In the course of shooting this work, what have you learned about bison ranching and bison restoration?
WW: I had the opportunity to shoot photos at Ranchlands Bison Works two years ago, seen in a couple of these photos. The dino pigs, as I’ve heard them called, have grown to be some of my favorite animals on earth. Whether it was seeing them in Yellowstone Park as a kid, or watching Dances With Wolves and seeing the power they hold, I just have fallen in love with them.
I’m not sure how much ranching is even involved with bison. To me, I think they need to just be left alone to live and thrive. In most operations they process [count], and treat the herd a bit more like a cow-calf operation, culling a few here and there. But for the most part, letting them live in nature roaming as they were meant to be.
WS: Where do you get your inspiration and source of creativity?
WW: From my mom and all the old Western photos floating around on Pinterest. My mom was a painter and painted the same genre of content that I shoot. I also owe everything I have ever created to God, for giving me a decent eye to see the world in a beautiful way, and for giving me opportunities to continue to create and tell people stories.
WS: What are the best tools for what you do? What are your tools for the trade?
WW: I have main film cameras: a Contax T2, a Fujifilm GA645W, and a Mamiya RZ67. I also use a bunch of Sony cameras for commercial work. But, I will say the greatest tool I have is my eye–the experiences that have shaped it, the movies I’ve watched and the mountains and stars I’ve seen. It is the one thing that makes every photographer different from the rest.