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Lucas Foglia's best photograph: cowboys Casey and Rowdy in the Nevada desert

Interview by Jenny Stevens

 

Casey and Rowdy lived on the 71 Ranch on the edge of the Ruby Mountains in rural Nevada. Depending on the season, anywhere between five and 10 cowboys work there, herding cattle over tens of thousands of acres. Casey, on the white horse, is the cattle boss: it’s his job to look at the landscape and decide where the cattle should go next. Rowdy is working with him and the dog’s job is to round up cows. The land in this part is wild in the way the west is famous for being wild. If you started walking away from the road, there’s a good chance nobody would ever find you.

 

I photographed the ranch over about two years, as part of my Frontcountry project about the modern-day American midwest: Nevada, Texas, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico and Montana. The places I went to are among the least populated in the US. I took this in 2013, right at the end of the project. No matter how early I got up, Casey got up earlier. That day, I woke at five to find a message saying he was going to move cattle and I should stop by. We spent the morning herding. There wasn’t a lot for them to feed on – there’d been a drought. Later, we came to a section of green by the roadside and waited as the cattle grazed.

 

I got out of my car. The day was hot and dry. The wind was kicking up dust. In this part of the high desert, it can get to over 90 degrees. But at night, it can drop to freezing. You can see snow on the mountaintops. By now it was late afternoon and the shadows were starting to go sideways. Casey was helping Rowdy train his horse not to rear up when a cow pulls on a lasso. I heard the dog bark, turned, saw the horse rearing and took the shot.

 

I grew up on a small farm in upstate New York. Some of my earliest memories were of playing cowboy out on the land. When I started Frontcountry, I was searching for that iconic image of the cowboy I had from my childhood. Cowboys are like the emblem of the midwest - they’re on all the licence plates and tourist souvenirs. Yet it’s becoming harder to be a cowboy. The number of cows and sheep has dropped dramatically. Many ranches hire airplanes to herd cattle by scaring them with the sound of the engine.

 

The biggest profits to be had there now are in mining. If the region where Casey and Rowdy work was a country, it would be the fourth largest gold-producing country in the world. Gold is currently so expensive, it’s profitable to mine for even a 10th of an ounce of gold dust. So companies are coming in and buying up ranches, then digging bigger and bigger holes for smaller and smaller profits, leaving these open pits miles wide within the mountains. The image of the cowboy hasn’t changed: you can still go to a rodeo and see them on horseback. But there are more incentives for them to change their lifestyle.

 

When I showed this to the cowboys on the ranch, they said: ‘It’s a great photograph, but it’d be better if you didn’t have the rope and Casey wasn’t about to fall off the horse.” But for me, that’s what makes it a photograph: it shows more than what you expect to see. Casey doesn’t really understand why this image is on the walls of museums and galleries around the world.