Though Jay Dusard wasn’t born into the cowboy life, he got there as soon as he could. When the Army stationed him at Ft. Hood, Texas, the Illinois native bought his first horse and worked with local ranchers whenever possible. After his discharge in 1963, he cowboyed at Arizona’s historic John Slaughter Ranch for $7 a day before shifting gears and pursuing photography.
By 1980, the self-taught photographer had been honing his craft for 15 years and was teaching photography at Prescott College in Arizona. While applying for a Guggenheim Fellowship, Dusard sought the advice of a friend.
“Be sure to select a subject you’re truly interested in,” his friend said. “If you get the fellowship, you’re going to be stuck with it, so make sure it’s something you really want to photograph.
For Dusard, the answer was easy: working cowboys.
He won the prestigious fellowship in 1981, which enabled him to visit ranches throughout the American West, from Canada to Mexico, making large-format black and white portraits of punchers, vaqueros, and buckaroos.
“It was a great deal,” says Dusard. “Not only did I work with my 8x10 view camera, but I got to use my saddle, chaps, and spurs. The real payoff was being invited to saddle up and ride with the people I was photographing.”
The resulting photos were presented in his acclaimed first book, The North American Cowboy: A Portrait. Numerous award-winning collections of cowboy photography and art museum exhibitions followed.
Says Dusard, “I just want people to look at my photographs and realize these are good, intelligent, qualified, and sincere people who belong on the land.”