Bob Isaacson's Blog

Welcome to this blog. It is basically a collection of stories, letters, essays, reviews, and poems that I have written over the past years, some of which were published in the Santa Barbara Independent and other local publications.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Review of Dibblee Hoyt's Photo Exhibit, "Ranch Shots"

"Pete," A Photo in Dibblee Hoyt's Show

About ten years ago, Dibblee Hoyt moved to his family’s ranch, Rancho San Julian, on highway one, south of Lompoc. He began to come to the local spring roundups when local ranchers brand and vaccinate their fall calf crop. He did not bring a horse and a rope, but rather a camera and assorted lenses in a tote bag. Occasionally Hoyt will hold a syringe or help to throw down a calf, but mostly he has taken on the role of photographer, faithfully recording the action, characters, and traditions of these local events, which have been held annually for two hundred years, since the beginnings of the Spanish mission period.

Hoyt’s fifty or more photographs in his exhibit, "Ranch Shots,"offer a rare and honest view of our county’s contemporary ranching culture. He has a good eye for capturing small illuminating details, such as close ups of well-worn boots and silver spurs, braided rawhide reins, gnarled hands resting on a saddle horn during a break. There are action shots of ropers on well trained horses heading and heeling calves, and the ground crew pulling the calves down. It can be very dangerous being in a corral on foot with five or six ropers busily catching calves, especially for a photographer trying to focus his camera on a good picture. I once saw a photographer literally flipped head over heels by a rope attached to a running calf. A lot can happen in a hurry in  a branding corral. In such a potentially chaotic place, one really needs eyes in the back of one’s head. Most photographers at brandings play it safe and stay on the fence. Hoyt’s pictures, however, are shot from all over the corral, sometimes from surprising angles and places. This extra effort has given his photographs a surprising authenticity, freshness, and originality.

 There is no part of our history more filled with cliches than that which is associated with cowboys and ranching. However, in these photos, Hoyt has assiduously avoided romanticizing the local cattle culture. In his pictures, more than in any other ones I have seen, one really sees it exactly as it is. To the people in Hoyt’s pictures, a cattle branding is an indispensable part of the business of ranching.  In these photos, everyday people are going about their work, work which they clearly know very well.

To some extent, a branding is also a social occasion in which neighbors get together to help each other out by sharing the work in a very labor-intensive day. Neighbors who normally don’t see each other much during the year get a chance to visit and catch up on the news. A large barbeque ceremoniously ends the long day in which up to 200 to 300 calves might get branded and vaccinated. People lean on the corral fence, telling the newest jokes or complaining about the weather. The older cowboys, ones too old to wrestle calves, generally offer a running commentary on roping styles, appropriate bits, or the condition of the cattle. Some of Hoyt’s photographs are classic portraits of these old timers, who, as one of them, Lloyd Kalin, once said, “would rather rope than eat.” There is a lot of truth to that statement. Other pictures show us the younger  generation, fathers with children; kids helping out and learning the skills; young women riding horses, pulling down calves, branding, or giving shots. Everyone has a job, even if it is only to lean on the fence, for work needs to be done.

Lately, many books have talked about the end of the ranching era and the last of the cowboys; however, Hoyt’s refreshing photographs are no such elegy; instead, they accurately chronicle a culture in transition, families still carrying on with the relatively unchanging techniques, traditions, and skills which they have inherited, in various forms and various ways. In Hoyt’s  photographs, one gets  the distinct impression that there is still a lot of open range land in Santa Barbara County, and that there is still an active and vital culture that cares for and knows intimately that land. It is a good impression to have. Such knowledge can raise your spirits. Go and see these pictures. Study them carefully.

Dibblee Hoyt Show in Lompoc Historical Museum