Legendary photographer Barbara Van Cleve has documented the Montana landscape for decades, including its working ranchers, beloved horses, and cattle. Barbara’s first camera, a brownie box Junior, I was given to her at age 11, and she’s been taking photos ever since.
Born in 1935 and raised in a ranching family, Van Cleve said she wanted to share that lifestyle with the world, so she set out to document the everyday life of a ranching family. The Cleve family established the Lazy K Bar Ranch in 1880 near Melville on the eastern slopes of the Crazy Mountains, and Van Cleve has spent her life in Montana photographing the ranching life around her.
“I care so much about my photography as a way of communicating to people, the fact that I love ranching,” Van Cleve said during an interview with Yellowstone Public Radio. “I love the Crazy Mountains. To me, those mountains reached around me. They were comforting. They were taking care of me. Oh God, they are just home, spelled with capital letters.”
Van Cleve was exposed to photography at a young age though Life Magazine, which was delivered to the family ranch. From that early exposure to Life Magazine, Van Cleve’s style was informed by documentary photojournalism, using natural light, and working to compose her images in the camera. She describes herself as a “one shot” photographer and does not pose her subjects.
“So often students in workshops ask me, ‘What kind of camera do you have?’ ‘What kind of lens do you have?'” said Van Cleve. “I point to my eyes and I say, ‘I’ve got these. And I have this,’ and I put my hand on my heart, because what really counts is not the equipment — it’s what I see and what I feel, and that’s what’s so important in photography to me.”
As well, Van Cleve studied the photos of black and white masters such as Ansel Adams and photographs almost exclusively in black and white. Her style evolved from the back of horses, where she found she could move quicker and get up high enough to capture the action and the sweeping vistas of the land in front of her. Her photography often incorporates natural elements—dust, snow, rain, lightning, clouds—which add atmospheric dimension to her work.
“I grew up with black and white, and I taught myself to see in black and white, and people say, ‘Oh, come on. It’s a colored world out there. You can’t see in black-and-white.’ Oh yes you can, if you’ve spent as many years as I have with a red filter across the viewfinder … I think once my I was trained to see these things, I did.”
Hear the full interview on Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains.
Thank you to Nick Olson and the Yellowstone Art Museum for the photos of Barbara Van Cleve, when she was speaking at the museum during a retrospective of her photography that opened in April 2023.