Rancher and photographer Skye Clark is capturing authentic Western life as it happens.
Written by Constance Dunn
“We’re making history every day,” says Skye Clark. It’s summer in Star Valley, Wyoming, which means this rancher gets up around four in the morning to traverse miles on horseback, overseeing grazing herds of cattle. When haying season comes, she’ll be riding a tractor, putting up hay and fixing fences. In winter she’ll hook up horses to a sleigh and feed the cows by hand. Along the way there are great photo opportunities. “My goal,” says the multi-generational rancher, “is to capture real life as it’s happening. Nothing is staged or posed.”
In her work, one sees the beauty of life unfolding in the great outdoors. And, thanks to the 24-7 nature of ranching, the work is prolific and varied. But for Clark there’s also a sense of urgency, because she’s capturing a distinct way of living and working that’s responsive to change. “Our valley has probably doubled in the last five years,” she points out. “People are buying houses sight unseen because they’re panicked and they’re fleeing cities. It’s definitely changing. Our way of life is slowly slipping away—and I know it’s going to be almost nonexistent before very long.” And so she wants to document as much of it as possible.
“I’m very sentimental,” she admits. “I’m very tied to the old school.” It’s easy to see why: In 1891, Clark’s great-great grandparents bought land in western Wyoming, and her family has been here ever since. “I appreciate all the sacrifice, and hardship and the struggle they had just to build what they did,” she says of ancestors who worked the land for nearly 130 years, throughout snowstorms and sweltering heat. With her eyes open to the often-harsh demands of ranching, Clark knew from her youth how she would spend her life. “I was always Dad’s ‘head man’,” she says. “He raised me like a boy. He needed help with the work, and I was always so much older than the rest.”
While Clark spent her days tending the family’s ranching and outfitting business, she also trained her eyes on the splendor and details of the land. “In the fall,” she describes, “you ride in the dark for a couple of hours and all the sudden you’re on the top of a mountain when the sun is coming up.” Seeing the early morning light set the leaves aglow is one of many sights that captivated her. “Even before I knew what a camera was, I always paid attention to lighting,” she adds. “I love and appreciate nature and everything that God has made. I’m always looking for it.”
Clark began to document ranch life and keeps her tools uncomplicated. “The first camera I bought was a disposable camera,” she says with a laugh. Every few years she would upgrade, and though she currently has an EOS 5D Mark III, she typically captures her of-the-moment images on a trusty phone camera. “I’m on horseback probably 85 percent of the time,” she explains. The mountains are steep, and the work is constant, making it impossible to carry a full-on photographer’s rig with her. Packing light gives her the fluidity to capture different angles and perspectives—and do so in a flash. “As the years have gone, I am much more into giving people a sense of being right there with me,” Clark muses.
This means offering a take on the American West that is neither gussied up nor pre-determined, with its beauty coming from its unvarnished candor. “I want to show people what’s real,” she says. “We’re not dressed up and the weather might suck, but we’re out here doing it because we love it. I want to preserve and document our way of life and say, ‘Hey, we were here once.’”
Photos courtesy of Skye Clark