For the past few years, Walter Workman’s name has appeared frequently in Western Horseman. The photographer, and newly-turned writer, showcases his view of the Western life. In the June issue, Workman contributed “Neighboring,” depicting the way Colorado ranchers come together to help complete brandings. I sat down with Workman to get some insight on where he came from professionally and why shooting cowboys is now his life’s passion.
WH: Tell us about yourself and your photography background. Before you shot for Western Horseman, what was your favorite image or some subjects you loved to shoot?
My family was one of those that always had a camera on trips so I was around photography. In high school, I started shooting school sports and really got into sports photography. I went to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California, for photography school and through that did some wonderful internships in fashion, sports and some event photography. I shot almost everything from fashion models in Europe to fire fighters in the United States.
I always sold myself[to employers] as someone who could shoot in any location and solve problems, get in the right position and understand the light. I try to apply that whether shooting travel photos or fashion. I’m probably the only photographer that has shot in Coco Chanel’s apartment in Paris and a cattle drive in West Texas. You bring the same kind of problem solving skills to both kinds of shoots.
WH: What brought you to the Western lifestyle and what drives you to shoot iconic Western images?
I moved back to Texas about five years ago and was seeing a woman who’s family had a ranch founded in 1851. She invited me to accompany her to a branding on the ranch. I’m sure they were thinking I’d sit on the fence and take photos with a point-and-shoot. But, that weekend resulted in a seven-page photo essay in Western Horseman, “The Swenson Ranch Revival.” I went out and started photographing these cowboys—and I’ve documented forest fires and other events—but quite honestly, that weekend was a fantastic shoot. The guys were in their teepees and had a chuckwagon, and it was one of the best shoots of my life. I got some great photographs but I also really enjoyed it.
After that ran, a neighboring rancher invited me to his ranch, went out there and got more photo essays published, and I was off and running. These ranches and cowboys are cool to photograph, fun to hang out with, do great work that makes for great images and, really, who doesn’t like hanging out with cowboys.
WH: Moving into a different industry comes with change. What are some of the things you’ve learned on the road and is there a story behind any of your lessons?
Doing this, I probably drive 50,000 miles a year. I am comfortable being outside and have camping skills, and I think that is important. I keep water and power bars in my car and can stay out a few days if I need to. You have to learn to be comfortable and be able to function without having to stay in a four-star motel. Some people have a hard time with that. I’ve done photo shoots in towns that are so small they don’t have any motel at all. You get comfortable rolling with the punches and learn how to get through different terrain and weather and not be discouraged. It goes back to problem.
I got into this later in life and had ridden horses minimally in the decades prior. One thing I took as a great compliment was when I was shooting on the Babbitt Ranches in Arizona. I was taking pictures in the pens with colts and doing this and that. At the end of the day we were having dinner [story author] Jennifer [Denison, senior Western Horseman editor] made a comment that she couldn’t believe I was in the pens walking around with all the young horses. I said the cowboys were in there and they could have kicked me out. Then [Babbitt Ranches Manager] Vic Howell said something really nice.
He said, “Some people go out there and you know they might not be as comfortable with the horses but will go into the pens. We will say to them to get out after a minute or two so we can work, but Walter was aware of what was going on around him.”
I took that as one of the highest compliments from a rancher or cowboy. I looked like I knew what I had been around animals all my life. You have to be aware of your surroundings when you are taking pictures and know what is around you.
WH: What story has had the biggest impact on you, and what subject would you most like to shoot?
You know, the photo essay with the most impact has to be the first on the Swenson Ranch. I had never shot cowboys before and it has literally changed my life. It opened the door for me and I now have all these great friends, and I do consider them friends. I met them by taking pictures for the magazine. Also in that, I got some of the best cowboy photos I’ve taken in the past five years from that first 48 hours of shooting.
If I could do a series of portraits of camp men—guys living out by themselves in the bunkhouse—out 50 miles from cell phone coverage, that would just be something fun to do. A series of portraits of cowboys that work alone mainly.