Seven years ago, I reached my limit: I had to know whether the cowboy culture of the American West still existed. I took nothing for granted and went to explore with fresh eyes. I have been touring the West ever since.
On my second journey, in 2011, I met two little girls growing up on a remote, family-owned cattle ranch in northern Nevada. I was immediately intrigued by their world—all different types of animals are a part of daily life, so a puppy on a birthday is nothing to get excited about. These girls filled their time with home schooling, helping with ranch chores, riding, roping, and playing on their own.
Each day brings new adventures: calves born in snowy landscapes, dust so fine you can see insect tracks, multi-hour treks to reach the grocery store. The sky over the treeless land seems beyond measure, and the light on the pale green and purple sagebrush is unparalleled.
Both romance and harshness are associated with our visual image of a cowboy. The prevailing picture in our minds is this: a lonesome twenty-something man who moves from one camp to another. Meanwhile, my “cowboys” are two girls growing up in a very masculine world that is not thriving—drought, high land prices and changes happening in the cattle industry are making this lifestyle nearly impossible to continue.
I want to witness the change in this Western lifestyle through the lives of these cowboys. My journey will continue alongside them into adulthood.
Each of us spent our childhoods with a personal series of heroes and mythical characters that we admired and tried to emulate. For many, the figure of the cowboy was this hero.
This adventurous individual always cut a dashing figure as he galloped towards the endless horizon of a remote land. He was a powerful, appealing force as he broke wild mustangs, rounded up cattle, hunted coyotes, and outdrew his rivals. These scenarios feed dreams and bedtime stories for children around the world.
But as with every myth, there is a mysterious atmosphere that surrounds the cowboy’s personality: we can imagine his gestures and his look, but deeper than that, we know very little about his interior life.
Karoliina Paatos spent the last seven years shooting poetic images of cowboy culture in the Western part of the United States, specifically in Nevada, Idaho and Oregon. Through her photographs, we immediately understand that there’s much more behind the stereotyped portrait of the solitary man, the heroic loner. Paatos conveys how hard it is for the last family-owned ranches to persist in an era when big companies hold a virtual monopoly on both land and agricultural production.
Still, to dive into her book is to sweetly, if briefly, reconnect with a community that feels somehow familiar. At the same time, her images allow us to get closer to grasping this mythical subject’s real complexity and tragic, contemporary beauty.
Magisterially shot, immense, melancholic landscapes alternate with intense portraits and intimate interiors. The rhythm of the narrative is masterfully paced, drawing us inexorably through the pages of the volume.
Thus, the book—which is beautifully printed, consisting of a sewn hardback with an open spine and exquisite ivory stock—is well worth the journey, from cover to cover. While it may puncture a few childhood fantasies, it also opens the door to more nuanced adult dreams of lands and individuals still untamed.
Photographs and texts by Karoliina Paatos
Design and Layout: The Angry Bat and the photographer
Published by The Angry Bat, Ljubljana
Printing: Eurograf, Velenje
Limited Edition of 750 copies
Copies 1-50 special edition with print