John Langmore: Open Range – Photographing America’s Big Outfit Cowboys

John Langmore is an Austin, Texas based photographer known for his long-term work on East Austin and Oaxaca, Mexico. He grew up in a family of great photographers  – most notably his father, Bank Langmore, who established himself as one of the preeminent photographers of the American West in the 1970s. A professional and committed photographer, John tells us about his experience documenting the modern American cowboy.

At a time when photo projects increasingly focus on narrow and idiosyncratic subjects or are altogether conceptual, photographing something as well documented as the American cowboy is a challenge. The cowboy’s iconic status makes it difficult to transcend the clichés that are so often used to describe him. Yet America’s big outfit cowboys, the ones who own little more than the tools of their trade and move frequently between a small number of very large ranches, remain to most mere symbols of an idealized past. And to those that are even aware of his modern existence, few fully understand the life of big outfit cowboys as it exists at the outset of the 21st century.

These photos are part of a three-year project documenting America’s big outfit cowboy. Over the course of those three years I’ll visit twelve of the United States’ largest ranches, the top one percent of ranches that run 5,000 to 10,0000 mother cows, operate on as many as a million acres, and, most importantly, have a full crew of working cowboys. Although I’m currently two years into the project and have thus far visited nine of the twelve ranches, this project has been almost forty years in the making. In 1975 my father, Bank Langmore, photographed one of the seminal books on the American cowboy. Seeing his photos as a young boy and hearing first hand his stories of life on the range, all I dreamed of as a child was becoming a cowboy myself. That wish was answered when, at the age of twelve, my father found me a job on a large cattle ranch in eastern Montana. After that first summer I spent the next twelve summers working on ranches across the western United States. I worked on my last ranch after starting law school in 1986 and until I began this project two years ago, for almost thirty years I had virtually no connection back to my former life as a cowboy.

Fortunately, embarking on this project has allowed me to return to that earlier life. As all photographers who have worked on long-term projects appreciate, competently photographing a way-of-life such as cowboying requires you to participate in and experience that way-of-life. Simply being present to photograph cowboys requires full days in the saddle, sleeping in a teepee during spring branding and importantly, knowing how to stay out of harm’s way when working cattle. Cowboying is difficult – minding the horse you’re riding, being aware of the cows in front of you, understanding the synchronized tasks of moving large herds of cows – but it’s even more difficult when you’re doing all those tasks while photographing at the same time. The dust, rain, sun and constant beating during long rides place extreme demands on my camera equipment. It is the nature of these demanding conditions that led me to shoot the project exclusively with Leica cameras. My decision to use only film also made Leica cameras an obvious choice.

I cannot overstate how important it is to have durable bodies and lenses given the beating my cameras take and how little I’m able to carry with me when riding. When cowboys travel out each morning they do so at a high trot. For anyone who’s ever ridden, they know this is a horse’s roughest gait and even with my holsters, the cameras have to take hours of continual pounding each day. Thankfully, but not surprisingly, my Leica cameras have continued to perform exceedingly well. But when my cameras occasionally require service, as all do, I’ve been fortunate to have the support of Leica’s outstanding service department. They fully appreciate the significance of having cameras in top working order for photographers working in the field for weeks at a time with no more gear than they can easily carry. I would like to give my compliments to Leica’s service department, an overlooked but critical part of ensuring a photographer’s success.

To carry my cameras I’m using the same leather holsters my father had made in the 1970s. They’re worn at my side like gun holsters and are the only way I can imagine carrying cameras for twelve hours or more on the back of a horse. When out on a ranch, I spend all my time with the cowboys. We generally leave on our horses between 4 and 5 a.m. and we usually don’t return to the barn or camp until late afternoon or early evening. This means the camera gear I’m able to carry is very limited and confined to what I can carry on a horse. When riding out in the morning my standard equipment is my MP mounted with a 35 mm Summicron lens in one holster and my R6.2 with an 80 – 200 zoom in the other. I carry a 28 mm Summicron together with ten rolls of film in my vest. Although I don’t carry them with me each day, as backup I take with me to the ranches two M6 cameras and an R8 as well as a host of other lenses, including: a 21 mm Elmarit, a 50 mm Noctilux, a 90 mm Elmarit and a 16 mm fisheye for my R6.2. My choice of an MP and R6.2 are critical in that they are both mechanical and if the battery or light meter goes out in the field – which they have before – I’m still able to keep shooting. Although I’m usually confident enough to estimate proper exposure values, if a meter goes out on one camera I can always use the working camera to meter for the other, but most importantly I can continue to shoot at all times with both my zoom and wide angle lenses.

I’m shooting film because I believe a print on a wall is the best way to view and appreciate photography and with respect to prints, I much prefer the tonality and feel of gelatin silver prints. However, I’ll admit there are times when my commitment to film is challenged. Although I’ve learned to change a roll of film in my MP (although not the R6.2) while at a high trot on a horse, there have still been dozens of times when I hit the end of a roll of film at just the moment the elements of a great shot come into existence. As the shot disappears it would be hard not to wish for a DSLR that has the capacity for hundreds of frames relative to a roll of Tri-X that has only 36. But I also know I tend to shoot more deliberately with film than I do with a digital camera and for me that is a big advantage and one well worth the occasional shot I might otherwise miss.

Film is also a challenge because working conditions on ranches so often involve excessive dust if not also rain and snow. When you open the back of your camera in dusty conditions there is no way to keep some from getting inside the camera body, which in turn is bound to scratch your negatives. I’ve found no way around this as I can’t blow out my camera with each new roll and have just come to accept that I’ll likely be searching far and wide for a good spotter when it comes to making prints. With respect to rain and snow, I’ve generally gotten good about using my hat to shield my camera body when I’m changing a roll of film. And although dust, rain and snow are a constant issue on your lens, that is nothing unique to shooting film and is equally problematic for anyone shooting with a DSLR. I always carry a brush and lens cloth with me and try and remain vigilant about catching spots on my lens.

Although thus far I am taking a 28 mm and 35 mm lens with me when I ride out each day, I’m beginning to wonder whether I wouldn’t be better served with a 50 mm lens instead of the 28 mm (although the Noctilux is simply too large and heavy to carry with me on a horse in addition to the 80 – 200 zoom). A 28 mm is a wonderful lens but requires you to be close to your subject. Working from the back of a horse around livestock requires just the opposite. You have to maintain distance as you’ll either scare the cattle or someone else’s horse. A 50 mm lens is probably more consistent with this reality of photographing around livestock.

With respect to my MP, which I use for 80% of my shots, there is the advantage of its smaller lens and body size relative to a DSLR. It is much easier to carry on a horse as well as being easier to access and shoot with. But more importantly, as has been discussed extensively with respect to rangefinders, its small size and quiet shutter put much less of a barrier between me and my subjects and undeniably fosters a better dynamic for the sake of capturing candid, intimate moments. The fact that rangefinders only allow fixed focal length lenses is arguably a disadvantage when photographing from a horse as I’m seldom able to position myself exactly where I want to be. Horses have a mind of their own and most are reluctant to stand still just because I’m trying to get a certain shot. This difficulty in composing relative to standing on the ground has found me cropping images more than I ever have in the past. Fortunately, I have some leeway in that regard as Leica lenses offer great clarity even when cropping portions of a 35 mm negative.

But perhaps most important to me is the simplicity of Leica’s analog rangefinders. After setting your ISO, there are only three relevant mechanical variables to consider when making a shot – aperture, shutter speed and focus. And given I’m frequently shooting at f/11 or f/16 in full daylight, focus is easy and has, in many respects, become second nature. When having to compose a dynamic scene on a moving horse all while being aware of the cattle and cowboys in front of and behind you, having only aperture and shutter speed to think about is a real advantage. And while professional DSLRs obviously allow operation in manual mode, an analog rangefinder doesn’t even tempt me with the multitude of options available on a DSLR. I am a firm believer in keeping it simple. A photographer’s mental energy should be reserved primarily for engaging his subjects, anticipating how the scene before him is unfolding and most importantly for considering light and composition. Camera operation should be secondary and with practice almost completely reflexive.

Knowing few photographers will carry their cameras on a horse or ever photograph a project on the American cowboy, I’m hopeful this discussion on equipment might benefit the many photographers working on projects under equally or more demanding conditions. But as every photographer knows, technique and equipment are only important in as much as they aid in communicating one’s vision. What is most important for successful photography, as so succinctly stated by Henri Cartier-Bresson, “is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” For successful long-term projects, equal in significance is determination. Overcoming the obstacles that inevitably exist with respect to access, photographing in adverse conditions, and simply remaining inspired on the same project for several years requires a fair bit of determination. But with the successful culmination of those efforts also comes the deep joy that only photographers experience.

– John Langmore

To learn more about John and view his photographs, visit his website.

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  • I agree with your reasoning for using film as described above. To that I would add the dubious future of digital imagery.One only has to look to the past to see the future of digital media. 5.25″ floppies, hard drive crashes, etc. etc. Too frightening for a serious photographer to consider. I don’t object to digital printing (I’m personally a crappy darkroom printer) from a scanned neg so I embrace that aspect of the new age, but a negative can be lasting no matter the technology with which the final images are seen. Preferably on the wall or in a book.

  • Congratulations John, Great project that can only be attempted or completed with lots of heart. Thanks for the excellent endeavor, can’t wait to see the book. So many years after your Dad’s historic effort, yours will make both more historic!

  • Wow- great images with a great interview. I love that you are running the gamut of Leica film cameras. Thanks for your work, I am instantly reminded of Harvey Caplin.

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