Spirit of the West
The Stoecklein family keeps the spirit of the West alive.
By Mark Bedor
It’s a late summer afternoon in a gorgeous and unspoiled part of the American West. The jagged peaks of the Lost River Mountain Range outside Mackay, Idaho, tower over the rugged sagebrush country below, where a small group of horseback wranglers are in pursuit of a band of running horses. The setting sun casts a warm glow on the colorful cowboys, cowgirls and their quarry, leaping and crashing through the sage, hoofbeats rumbling as they gallop along. It looks like an exciting Western movie. Except, of course, for all the photographers.
Cameras fire away machine-gun style as this dramatic scene thunders by, a half-dozen photographers zooming-in and mashing their gear’s shutter-release buttons in quest of an idyllic Western lifestyle snapshot. It’s a rare but fortunate opportunity to capture such a classic Western image in today’s increasingly modern society, and it’s all courtesy of a Stoecklein Photography Workshop.
“This is fantastic,” student John Forquer exclaims; he’s here from Manassas, Virginia. “What an awesome setting!”
The Stoecklein name is well known to fans of Western photography, thanks to the prolific and passionate work of late photographer David Stoecklein. In his hay-day, David was a sought-after advertising photographer for some of the biggest names in corporate America. But when he wasn’t traveling the world shooting fashion models, images for movie posters like Braveheart or ads for companies like Coca-Cola, he was training his lens on the horses, cowboys and cowgirls of the American West.
“My goal was to document the West,” the personable pro once shared during an interview, “every aspect of it while I’m here. So I’ve been working on it for 25 years—the cowboy way of life, the Western way of life and the whole lifestyle.”
The Kid From Pittsburgh
It was an unlikely mission for a kid from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who never really picked up a camera until a brief stint at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University. A friend showed David the pictures he’d taken for a photography class, and that was the spark David needed to sign on himself. He spent the rest of his life taking pictures, but very little of it in his native state.
David first aspired to life as a ski bum, inspired by a waiter he met on a high-school ski trip to Colorado who only worked in the restaurant to support his skiing habit. At age 20, David left his hometown to ski the Wild West of the early 1970s.
Even from the beginning, when David wasn’t skiing, he was taking pictures on the slopes and selling them to his friends. Though he paid the bills by washing dishes, bartending and holding other odd jobs, David soon saw his ski photography business take off. His images became hot-selling postcards, and a popular ski poster David created sold tens of thousands of copies. Eventually, he expanded to shooting other outdoor sports too, along with stock photography and ski resort ad campaigns. By the end of the 1970s—and David’s 20s—business was pretty good.
“On an average year, I’d sell 5,000 or 10,000 pictures,” David once said. “You start selling that many pictures, and people take notice.”
Bigger jobs started rolling in for David—Coca-Cola came first, followed later by Marlboro. After meeting his bride, Mary, in Utah, the couple planted roots in Ketchum, Idaho, home of the famous Sun Valley ski resort. In between flights to ad shoots all over the world, David began training his lens on his ranching neighbors.
“I would like to think that my work is pure and honest,” David reflected in an interview before his death. “When people look at it, they see the real West.”
By 1988, a new market emerged for the thousands of ranching-life photographs snapped by David. The Idaho Cowboy became the first of some 50 popular Western coffee-table photography books, profiling cowboys, cowgirls, horses, bits, spurs, and almost every other aspect of the American West from Montana to California to Texas.
The books included The American Paint Horse: A Photographic Portrayal, David’s 2001 collaboration with then-Paint Horse Journal Editor Darrell Dodds. For famed photographer David, the project wasn’t his first exposure to the Paint Horse breed; his personal horse was a flashy black-and-white Paint named “Dalbin.”
“He loved that horse,” his widow, Mary, said. “He did everything with that horse: take it out in the mountains, trail ride, hunting trips. That was his very favorite horse.”
“He always loved Paint Horses,” son Drew continued. “We always had a couple of Paint Horses running around the ranch at all times.”
The Stoeckleins’ Bar Horseshoe Ranch, nestled in a valley amid the Big Lost Mountain range outside Mackay, Idaho, is a Western paradise. With its big pastures, weathered corrals and barn, and majestic mountain views, the retreat some 60 miles east of Ketchum naturally become a favorite location for Western-themed photo shoots. And it was a great place for the Stoeckleins’ three sons to grow up while subconsciously absorbing their father’s passion for photography, the outdoors and the Western lifestyle.
Son Colby left the ranch, called to enlist and become a U.S. Navy Seal, but his brothers Drew and Taylor wound up following their father’s photographic footsteps, which came as a big surprise to David.
“Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean your children will be,” David confessed in 2013. “And I never talked to them about it.”
Their career choice isn’t entirely out of the blue, however. After all, the boys did grow up on the sets of advertising photo shoots, where David put them to work.
“We’d have different jobs: driving for a car commercial, holding up the reflector, loading film,” Drew recalled. “So we’ve been around it our whole lives.”
Once out on his own, first-born Drew initially fought a photography career. Fate, it seems, had other ideas.
“I kind of went off on a different path; I didn’t really want to do what my dad was doing,” he said. “The next thing I knew, I was living in Utah, working in the same restaurant that he used to, and I was shooting photos and getting film developed by his mentor. And on top of that, I was hanging out with all of his buddies that were ski bums back in the day but were now managers of the resorts. At that point, I realized I probably shouldn’t fight the path and just go with it.”
Along the wandering path that first took him away from, and then back to, home, Drew apprenticed with famed National Geographic photographer Dan Cox, well known for his popular international photo seminars. The concept piqued Drew’s interest, and he tried to persuade David to launch a series of training seminars of his own. At first, David had neither the interest nor the time; the economic downturn of 2008, however, helped change his mind.
“Nobody wanted to do any new ads,” Mary said about David’s longstanding advertising clients. “They kept using their old pictures. David thought, ‘OK, I’ve got time now.’ So February 2010, we did our first workshop.”
“It was just awesome,” Drew said. “It caught on like wildfire. He was such a big character; people loved hearing his stories and hanging out with him, and absorbing all the knowledge that he had.”
Diversification via the photo clinics made good business sense, but even more rewarding were the relationships the Stoeckleins’ developed with others who shared their passions.
“We’ve met the most unbelievable people,” Mary said. “The people who come to our workshops give us great joy. By the end of the weekend, everyone’s great friends.”
Hone your skills at a Stoecklein workshop or take a piece of the West home.
Thumb through some of David’s most iconic images in The American Paint Horse: A Photographic Portrayal, available from the APHA General Store
store.apha.com (click on “Books & Videos”)
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2016 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.