Years ago, National Geographic photographer Sam Abell came to Nebraska to promote his work, including his book The Life of a Photograph. During his presentation, he spoke of one of his favorite images, which he made at a branding at the Ken Rosman Ranch in Utica, Mont.
Abell’s perfect composition pulled me in, and like many photographers before me, I knew I wanted to try my hand at one of the many annual brandings in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.
A few weeks ago, with many thanks to Elsie at the Woodlake Cafe and Joe Mundorf, an area rancher, I photographed cattle branding at the historic Jim Morris and Burdick Ranches.
Read Joe Duggan’s story and see a short video I produced on Omaha.com, and check out a high-resolution showcase of my pictures.
Like anything worth the effort, photographing branding is incredibly taxing, but it’s visually loaded and very rewarding when the right elements come together.
More than anything, I enjoyed getting to know some fellow Nebraskans whose life experiences have been so different from mine. I learned a great deal from my conversations with the ranchers and their families, and I appreciated how much these ranchers depend on their friends and neighbors.
The Jim Morris Ranch has been in the family for close to 120 years, so I spoke with Kelly Morris about how this life has been sustainable for her family.
“Everybody pulls together … to sell beef. And that’s how we all make our living, and it’s a simple, clean life,” she said. “Yeah, it’s hard work, but, you know, these old boys don’t know anything different. They don’t know the hustle and bustle and traffic and this and that and whatever. All they know is cattle and grass.”
Branding requires the cooperation of the entire community. As Ben Burdick, seen below, put it, ”We run a thousand cows,” he said. “If you didn’t have help, you couldn’t operate.”
The two days I spent on the ranches were a wonderful escape from the city life that Kelly Morris spoke of, and I’m glad I was able to catch a glimpse of their lives.
She put it best: “You can’t find better people that’ll work together for the same thing. It might not be their cattle, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the end goal, and the strength of the community and people, you don’t find much of that nowadays. And it’s pretty nice out here. We still have it. We’re all a big family.”
And for those wondering, yes, I did pitch in and wrestle a calf.