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Robb Kendrick

Robb Kendrick has delivered to us a remarkable suite of compelling images. Beyond the fixed gazes that appear to emanate from a much earlier time, certain details may begin to stand out to the viewer. Shirts, vests, jackets all seem to be buttoned backwards. Everyone holding a catch-rope appears to be a lefty. Could it be that Robb Kendrick cornered more southpaws than have ever occupied the ranks of major league baseball pitchers? Check out all the ropes attached to the forks of saddles on the left side; no detective agency needed here. The four backward sixes branded on the back of a cowpuncher‘s hat confirm that all these pictures are backwards.
Well, dear friends, you haven‘t been hornswoggled. Reverse-reading images are the product of the tintype direct-positive process, so while up doesn‘t become down, right does become left.
Tintype (a.k.a. ferrotype or melainotype) was patented by Professor Hamilton Smith of Ohio in 1856, and is considered America‘s first major contribution to the art of photography. Not exactly what America is best known for.
Now, the COWBOY! That‘s your bonafide high-rimmin‘, wide-loopin‘, double-hockin‘, silver-plated, E Pluribus ICON that the entire planet recognizes and admires. Even Brother Kendrick savvied this. After all, he grew up in Texas.

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But, back to the tintype. It is fitting that Robb chose to portray his working cowboy subjects in the eminently affordable medium that peaked in popularity after the Civil War -- during the ascendancy of Anglo ranching and cowboying in North America. One could argue that photographing contemporary workers in such an unrefined, archaic medium overly romanticizes them. I know that the subjects don‘t feel that way. Robb‘s vision simply anchors them in the traditions that they respect and cherish.
What Robb‘s cowboys practice is contemporary reality, not nostalgia. The varied, sometimes harsh, landscapes that these folks inhabit and work in are distinctly more suited to the raising of livestock than to most other uses. The horses they raise, train, and partner with are as essential to the craft as they were a century and a half ago. A modicum of mechanization notwithstanding, fine horsemanship, skill with a rope, and finesse in the handling of cattle still rule the range.

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In different decades Robb and I have traveled some of the same trails and visited some of the same outfits. Photographically, we have had certain aspects in common. In the early 1980s my approach was thought to be cumbersome, antiquated: 8 x10-inch view camera, huge tripod, a dozen lenses, too few film holders. Plenty of film, but not always a clean, dark place for unloading and reloading. A quarter-century later, along came Kendrick with his penchant for further antiquity and all the burdensome trappings of his modus operandi: 8x10 view camera adapted to 5x7, big tripod, an assortment of period lenses, boatloads of 5x7-inch metal plates. Plus towing a darkroom trailer with counter space, trays, chemicals (some rather toxic), water, safelights, hotplates, storage racks and bins…the beat goes on.

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I have watched Robb at work, as he photographed cowboy friends of mine (Warner Glenn and Monk Maxwell). For openers, Robb is friendly, engaging, respectful. Once he has decided upon the portrait location, usually determined by architectural features and the nature of the light, he expedites the setup of the darkroom trailer, tripod, and camera, then preliminarily positions his subjects in a composition. Entering the trailer, he mixes his potions and prepares a sensitized metal plate, then loads it into its holder. Back outside, he refines the composition and focus, makes an educated guess as to exposure time, and informs his subjects of how many seconds he desires them to hold still. With an opaque bag over the lens, Robb loads the plate holder into the camera, pulls the darkslide, removes the bag for the predetermined number of counted seconds, then re-covers the lens.
Time is of the essence here, since the exposure must be made and the development process begun while the plate is still moist. So, the maestro must hustle back into the trailer. Often the little darkroom draws a crowd, as cowboys are invited in to witness the emergence of their images in a tray illuminated by a dim amber safelight.

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Cowboys make circles. A man or woman may ride out from headquarters or cow camp to inspect the cattle, to rope and doctor a sick one, or check on the availability of water and forage. The distance and duration of the completed circle is often dependent upon the unforseen. Stray cattle from a neighboring ranch may need to be returned and breached fencing repaired. A pipeline leak in arid country may require some ingenious patchwork. The return ride may be in the dark, on a tired horse.
The outside circle is the longest, widest-ranging path that a cowboy travels in rounding up cattle. Here one usually goes for the longest periods of time without seeing one’s comrades. The cowboy assigned to ride the outside circle is invariably the most competent and experienced member of the crew.

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Here, at the beginning of our overly populous, overly conflicted, heartburn-inducing Twenty-First Century - on the toe of the curve, a photographer might say - Robb’s timely images give me comfort and hope. A recent plane flight angled me across western New Mexico, over remote country that I had been horseback in, helping various rancher friends gather cattle. That nothing appeared to have changed made me think of Robb in his rig somewhere between British Columbia’s Chilcotin River and the Sierra de la Encantada in Coahuila, traversing the cow country of three nations. He proved (perhaps only to himself and to me) that cowboys, old-timers and new recruits alike, may be threatened, but they’re far from vanishing.
Robb Kendrick rode the outside circle and returned with immense revelations.
Jay Dusard
Cochise County, Arizona
June, 2007
"Still: Cowboys at the Start of the Twenty-First Century"
by Robb Kendrick, essay by Marianne Wiggins, afterword by Jay Dusard
(University of Texas Press, 2008) 



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