Photographer Scott Baxter’s striking portraits resonate and preserve authentic Western heritage.
By Mark Bedor
It’s a simple portrait of a cowgirl in an oversized palm-leaf straw hat; she stands before the weathered wooden planks of a rustic ranch building, her piercing eyes looking directly through the camera and into your soul. A white bandana hangs down the center of her Western plaid snap shirt, flanked by two long strands of her braided hair. The black-and-white photograph is timeless—simple, yet captivating. It’s a classic example of the unique Western photography of Scott Baxter.
“When I’ve got someone looking at me, I’m always watching for that moment when they’re there,” the acclaimed photographer explained. “And if you know Sheila Carlson, that’s her. That’s her look, that’s her demeanor—that’s who she is.”
Sheila’s a cowgirl at the Flying M Ranch, a free-ranch beef operation outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. Her portrait is part of Scott’s ongoing “Top Hand Project”–a collection of portraits of some three-dozen working cowboys and cowgirls across nine Western states.
“The most important thing is that it be authentic,” Scott said of his hallmark black-and-white images that tug at viewers’ nostalgia for an earlier time. “I don’t style stuff. I don’t tell people what to wear. I don’t say do this, do that. I try to keep it really authentic, and I try to keep it correct.”
Scott wants to shoot at least another two-dozen “Top Hand” portraits and cap off the project with a book of the photographs. This venture is a follow up to his acclaimed 100 Years 100 Ranchers project-turned-coffee-table book, produced in connection with Arizona’s centennial in 2012. The striking collection of monochromatic portraits has been featured in exhibits and presentations across Arizona. Robert Stieve, editor of Arizona Highways, calls the collection “The best photographs ever made of ranchers in Arizona” that captures “a disappearing way of life that has deep roots in our state.”
Behind the Lens
Scott was a relative latecomer to both Arizona and the Western lifestyle, as well as to photography. The Connecticut native attended the prestigious Peddie Boarding School in New Jersey and later graduated from Ohio’s College of Wooster with a history degree and plans to teach. Scott had always been interested in Western history, and chose the annexation of Texas as the subject for his senior thesis, required for graduation.
While teaching at a Connecticut boarding school the following year, a 9th-grade student taught him how to process black-and-white film. Scott quit at the end of his first teaching year, destined to become a photographer.
After a year in Seattle working in a photo lab and as a photo assistant, Scott enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Arizona State University, outside of Phoenix. But two weeks before his classes began, a commercial photographer hired him as an assistant. Five years later, he went out on his own.
Scott might have spent his life as a commercial, advertising and editorial photographer, if not for his love of fly-fishing.
“I was fly fishing with a friend of mine on some state land outside of this ranch,” he recalled of that day in the late 1990s. “He said, ‘We should fish at this ranch.’ I didn’t really want to pay to fish, but he said, ‘Well, you’ll really like the people.’ And that’s where I met Wink Crigler, Shug Peters and Sam Udall.”
All three are well known names in Arizona ranching. Wink Crigler is the widow of horse trainer Oscar Crigler, whose memory is honored by APHA with its Oscar Crigler Cattle Horse Award, presented annually at the APHA World Championship Show. Wink owns X Diamond Ranch in Arizona, which has been in her family since the 1800s; Sam Udall is her neighbor.
Intrigued by the trio of characters, Scott cultivated friendships with the ranchers.
“I started to pick their brains, started going back there and I just started talking to Wink about Western history,” Scott said. “And I went to her with an idea.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.