Adam Jahiel

Adam Jahiel lives at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains in the northeast corner of America’s least-populated state-Wyoming. His 1928 mission-style bungalow and nearby studio stand on two ponderosa pine-dotted acres, practically adjacent to the Bighorn National Forest, on the edge of the town of Story-population 250.

Most Americans would consider his backcountry retreat as far off the grid as it gets. But when the 44-year-old photographer really feels like getting away from it all, he hops into his Ford pickup truck, ditches Wyoming altogether, and drives 800 miles west to Elko, Nevada-a patch of blue sky and tumbleweed that makes Buffalo’s expatriate artist community look downright yuppie. To the untrained eye, there’s not even a hill of beans differentiating the desolate cowboy life of Wyoming from that of Nevada. But to Jahiel, who has devoted the past decade to a project photographing the last strongholds of this quirky, romanticized subculture, it’s like trying to interchange Miami with Los Angeles.

“You look at a road map of Nevada,” says Jahiel, “and it almost looks like they forgot to fill in the blanks. Ranchers live 150 miles from Elko and they might come into town once a month or so. Here in Wyoming, everything’s a little bit closer. Cowboys will finish up with their day and go home to their families. In Nevada, cowboys eat dinner in their saddles-it’s a little pocket of life the way it was 100 years ago.”

Indeed, Jahiel’s gritty, textured, black-and-white images could easily be mistaken for E.E. Smith’s rangeland photographs of the 1920s. Characterized by craggy, bow-legged cowboys, sinewy horses, stark landscapes, and a rush of dark clouds and billowing dust, Jahiel’s shots visually represent the American West the way Cormac McCarthy verbalizes it. As a result, Jahiel has unwittingly become America’s finest documentarian of the disappearing cowboy.

“In a nutshell, Adam sees cowboy life whereas a lot of other photographers see calendars,” says Richard Slatta, a history professor from North Carolina State University who has written several books on the West. “Other photographers are pursuing the myth and not the reality. When I use images in my books, what I want are Adam’s photographs showing authentic cowboy life.”
To say that this tall, dark-haired photographer-who himself could easily be mistaken for a bull rider-is taken by the cowboy life, would be like saying that Andy Warhol merely dabbled in Campbell’s Soup cans. Jahiel is so drawn to capturing this endangered existence that even his newborn baby girl couldn’t keep him from the smell of fresh sagebrush and the call of the cattle trail last May. Newborn or not, last spring he did what he has done twice annually for the past ten years-he packed his tent, saddle, cook stove, and lantern, then headed west to his regular circuit of Great Basin ranches. There he spent weeks shadowing roundups, composing photographs and immersing himself in the simple, satisfying life of a cowboy. “It’s the closest thing to being completely free that I’ve ever come,” says Jahiel, adding that on most of these jaunts he’s so far out of satellite or pay phone range that he rarely calls home.

Luckily, the disappearing act doesn’t seem to bother his wife Laura Sands, a freelance writer who, unlike many women, has an uncommon ability to allow her husband his few weeks of freedom. “Just by the virtue of being somebody who is an artist, he has to go his own way at times,” she says. “I realize that everybody has their sacred core and everyone has to pursue what it is that makes you realize who you are. Plus,” she adds, “he comes back refreshed and excited, which is what helps make his work distinctive.” But despite her calm outer appearance, Sands smiles, unable to resist a final little jab, adding, “He’s just lucky I don’t disappear for weeks on end.”

“All I do from daylight to sunset is look for a picture,” says Jahiel. “The whole experience-the light, the skies, the clouds, the smell of sagebrush…I love it. It’s incredibly aesthetic.” But it’s not just the aesthetic that appeals to the photographer. As much as anything it’s the Zen-like existence of these young migratory workers who don’t carry much, don’t own many things, and aren’t locked into punching clocks or, really, anything associated with the modern culture. “It’s such a simple existence,” he explains. “We all carry around so much baggage, and our lives are so complicated. Cowboys are open, honest, and don’t waste a lot of words. What you see is what you get.”

Jahiel likes to tell the story of his first roundup. He had arrived at a Nevada camp late one starry night without any warning. The cow boss stuck his head out of the tent flap and grunted to him that breakfast would be served at 4:30 a.m. At dawn, Jahiel woke up, wandered into the cook tent and stood uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out which chair to occupy in the odd, L-shaped line. The cow boss, sensing his discomfort, finally pointed to the end of the line and said, “Sit over there. That’s where the new guy sits.” The cow boss didn’t speak another word to the newcomer for the next ten days. “From then on, I knew to serve myself last, keep my eyes open, and my mouth shut,” laughs Jahiel. But on the last day, just as he was preparing to leave, the cow boss looked at him, grunted a goodbye, then added, “If you ever need a reference, just ask me.”

Just exactly how Jahiel started shooting cowboys, he isn’t exactly sure. But his passions have always run toward big, wide-open spaces-and wanderlust comes easy to this son of a University of Illinois French theater professor who, as a small boy, lived in Paris for a year attending a French-speaking school. Then, somewhere along the line, possibly by watching Jacques Cousteau specials on French television, Jahiel picked up an interest in oceanography, eventually studying the science at the Florida Institute of Technology. “My hero was always Jacques Cousteau,” he says, “The Silent World reflects a lot of what I’m still doing today.”

Ultimately Jahiel decided that oceanography was way too scientific so he headed instead to California and the Brooks Institute of Photography, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1980. Jahiel followed it up with a stint at the University of Missouri where he earned another bachelor’s degree in photojournalism in 1983. Itching to jump-start his career, Jahiel headed west after graduation and landed a plumb apprenticeship with Douglas Kirkland. The two traveled around the world together, shooting a very eclectic mix of fashion, glamour, science, astronomy and, Jahiel’s favorite-“parties for the very rich.”

With Kirkland, Jahiel learned the intangibles of the photography business:”how to travel, how to pack, how to bribe the baggage guy,” he jokes. “Doug would take me to New York on days when we weren’t shooting and he’d say, ‘put on a jacket and tie.’ Then we’d go talk to all the editors. My work with him was a necessary steppingstone. Plus,” Jahiel adds, “he was a great human being.”If Kirkland taught Jahiel the nuts and bolts of photography, it was Channing Peake who taught him about its soul. Peake, the husband of Jahiel’s then-girlfriend’s sister, was an abstract expressionist who was tight with Pablo Picasso. The artist had grown up on a ranch, and his house in the mountains of Santa Ynez, California, was littered with dozens of his abstract renderings of cowboys. “Peake was the guy who taught me how to see. His pictures were form and light and body language,” says Jahiel fondly. Peake died a few years ago, but the photographer still has many of the artist’s cowboy drawings for inspiration.
Thanks to his dabbling in oceanography, Jahiel was offered a position in 1987 as the photographer for the Titanic expedition.

“I was totally meant for the job,” he explains, “I spoke French and was just starting out my career.” Jahiel dove the Atlantic for a year, enjoying the worldwide publicity of the behemoth operation when another fantastic opportunity landed in his lap. Brooks Institute asked him to teach aboard the ship for the school’s Semester at Sea program. On the ocean, Jahiel’s time was his students’. When the ship docked, however, he was free to beat the streets of Yugoslavia, Russia, Turkey, Malaysia, Japan, China, and India, taking photographs and trying on new cultures.

“When I came back,” he laughs, “I decided there was no way in hell I was going back to the rat race of Los Angeles. At some point during my travels, I rediscovered the magic of photography and fell back in love with what was real and pure.” Then, while on a freelance assignment for the Sacramento Bee, Jahiel walked into a California ranch cook house, saw the kitchen’s plain white cupboards and empty coat hooks on the wall, and was immediately reminded of a Dustbowl-era Walker Evans photograph. This was all the inspiration he needed to head to the Rockies, where he soon landed a book project photographing the 50th anniversary of Wyoming’s Padlock Ranch. By the time he was finished, Jahiel was firmly rooted in the West.

Just how long Jahiel’s love affair with shooting big skies and rugged characters is going to last, is up for grabs. “About four years ago,” he says, “this project I started in 1989 took on a life of its own. Now it’s leading me rather than me leading it. It’s like peeling layers of an onion. I’ll wake up and won’t want to do it anymore, but come January or February, I start to itch and I have to head out in my truck to the Great Basin.”

Artistic obsessions aside, one very real concern for Jahiel is his fear that he may become pegged as “just a cowboy photographer.” In order to ward off that dubious distinction, Jahiel has worked hard to prove himself in commercial and editorial photography circles. In addition to his wide list of advertising clients, he also shoots celebrity portraits, magazine articles specializing in agriculture and science, for which he often teams with his wife, and Western-themed work like country music CD covers.

“I’ve kind of got one foot in the photographic art world and one foot in the Western art world,” Jahiel says, “and I want to keep it that way.” Not surprisingly, Jahiel is well represented in galleries across the country, especially where the clients are likely to be wearing cowboy boots. He is part of the permanent collection in Omaha’s Joslyn Museum, Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, and Hawaii’s L. Price Collection, in addition to representations in countless rotating exhibits. Walk into prestigious galleries from Jackson, Wyoming, to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Dallas, Texas, and you’ll find Jahiel’s signature scrawled on a photograph.

But no matter how he pays the bills, his ultimate goal is to finish what he started in 1989-to publish the definitive collection of American cowboy photography. It might take him awhile, considering that it usually takes months for him to develop the film from his Great Basin jaunts. “The cooler usually sits in the darkroom until fall,” Jahiel laughs. “I get busy doing summer things, then fall rolls around, the days get shorter, and it’s nicer to be in the darkroom. The exciting thing is that I’ve usually forgotten about a lot of stuff I’ve photographed.”

And while he may be a bit of a procrastinator, Jahiel is patiently shopping his book idea around to a number of publishing companies, knowing that he holds the trump card-no other book like his exists. “If I could leave this planet with a book of photographs to leave behind, that’d be just great,” he says. “These pictures of isolation, loneliness, and big sky-they’re about me as much as they are about the cowboys.” And though the rest of the book’s details are still a bit fuzzy, Jahiel’s had the name picked out as long as he can remember. He’ll call it “The Last Cowboy.”

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