For Phoenix-area photographer Scott Baxter, photographing the cowboy lifestyle is less about capturing an image to sell than it is about developing a place in the culture.
Tanner Lund, 15, photographed at the Burro Creek Corrals. Tanner is the youngest "Hand." He lives in South Fork, Ariz., and when not attending Round Valley High School, he cowboys for the X Diamond, MLY, and Cross L Ranches under the tutelage of cowboy Cody Cunningham.
Jeremiah Laney of Eager, Ariz., and his border collie Molly.
Lily Baxter is my "Hand." She is not only my daughter, but my assistant on this project. She travels with me as my photo assistant and works behind the scenes with logistics, archiving, and darkroom work. She got her first horse at age 10 from rancher Kym Johnson of the Cross L Ranch.
Jose Adame has been the foreman at the historic Sierra Bonita Ranch for more than 30 years.
Matt Ford works at the Sierra Bonita Ranch outside Willcox, Ariz.
Joel Maloney worked with his wife Raechel at the O RO Ranch in Yavapai County, Ariz. Joel now cowboys both in northern and southern Arizona.
Sam Donaldson manages the Rosemont Ranch outside Sonoita, Ariz. Sam was the first person I met in regards to Top Hand. I first met him when he was cowboying for rancher Henry Amado. Sam’s father and grandfather were associated with the historic Empire Ranch in southern Arizona.
Andy Zeigler cowboys at the Rosemont Ranch outside of Sonoita, Ariz.
Sheila Carlson cowboys for Kit Metzger of the Flying M Ranch in Coconino County. She has previously cowboyed in Oregon and other Western states.
“To me, it’s more about a relationship than it is grabbing some kind of photograph,” he says. “The majority of the people I work with are friends. I’m trying to pay it forward. It’s more about the people. I love being around them. I’m not a cowboy or a rancher, but there’s a history with ranching and the cowboy—it’s an iconic subject and I’m drawn toward how they live their lives.”
Baxter’s first project, a book titled 100 Years, 100 Ranchers, was released with Arizona’s centennial celebration in 2012 and focused on the state’s ranchers. Along the way, in addition to the ranchers, he met scores of working cowboys, who gave him the inspiration for his next project, called Top Hand.
“For the book, I was photographing the ranchers and not the cowboys and day workers,” he says. “So the Top Hand project is working cowboys and it was just a natural progression.”
The portraits are shot on film and developed using platinum and palladium, giving the images the greatest tonal range of any printing method using chemical development. This style is noted for its permanence. It’s estimated that a platinum image, properly made, can last thousands of years.
“I’ve done a lot of commercial work,” Baxter says. “But I always wanted to do something with my photography—build a body of work—that my kids could look back at and say, ‘Hey, my dad did that.’”