Barbara Van Cleve: A true American cowgirl and an amazing photographer to boot
There are plenty of photographers who spend their days capturing the awe-inspiring beauty and roll-up-your-sleeves hard work of ranch life. Whether it’s their panoramic images of a herd of cattle roaming in the distance, up-close-and-personal photos of majestic longhorns, or the first blush of a Texas sunrise, they’ve skillfully pointed their lens at rare moments and ensured they live on for generations.
But how many of those photographers have sat in a saddle or roped a calf and dragged it to the fire to brand it? How many painstakingly moved cattle or spent sun up to sun down doing odd jobs on the ranch — all with a camera in tow?
The answer is not many — unless their name is Barbara Van Cleve.
An award-winning American photographer best known for images of contemporary western ranch life, Van Cleve, 86, used a lifetime of experiences getting her hands and knees dirty on her family’s ranch, the Lazy K Bar in Montana, as inspiration for some of the more iconic photos you’ll see in your lifetime. That includes pointing her lens at ranch women, images that gave cowgirls a voice in an age where young women weren’t viewed the same as their male counterparts.
“I knew how the women worked — they kept house, raised the kids, cooked all the meals, and still went outside to help their husbands with the regular work,” Van Cleve once said in a video interview with Art of the Cowgirl.
“I wanted to give them a voice.”
Today, Van Cleve is revered not only for her photography and being a champion for cowgirls everywhere but also for how much she has accomplished. According to her website, her work is in both public and private collections in the United States as well as internationally. She has worked for Rand McNally as a textbook photographer, published several books, been the subject of countless articles and documentaries, and was the youngest dean of women in the United States at DePaul University — where she also taught English literature and photography.
Oh, and did we mention that she was inducted into the National Cowgirl Museum & Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1995? Her name stands side-by-side with the likes of Annie Oakley, Reba McEntire, Miranda Lambert, and so many more.
Van Cleve’s parents gave her a Brownie box camera when she was just 11 years old. Though photography wasn’t a career anyone thought a woman should go into in those days, she was a natural at it and would routinely have her camera nearby while working on the ranch with her parents. In that aforementioned interview with Art of the Cowgirl, Van Cleve gracefully explained how she has been able to capture so many perfect images over the years.
“I am height challenged, and I am not speedy. But, being on horseback means I have an extra elevation, and I can move around the scene of what I’m trying to photograph,” she said. “[When I’m galloping], it’s at the height of the gallop — not when they land. But when they go up, there’s just a split second of hesitation.”
And that hesitation has led to photographs that are the epitome of western life.
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At the The Original Windmill Ceiling Fan Company, we honor craftsmen who have similar values as us, such as their commitment to one-of-a-kind American-made products, hand-crafted quality, and personal one-on-one communication with every customer. Barbara Van Cleve is certainly no exception. If you’d like to learn more about Barbara and where you can view her photos on exhibit, you can visit her website here.
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