Legendary photographer of the American West David Stoecklein left a legacy in memorable pictures.
He loved good cow dogs, skilled horsewomen, hardworking cowboys, big storms coming in on lonesome prairies, the camaraderie of cattle gathers, and quiet sunrise rides in the mountains. Most of all, photographer David Stoecklein loved documenting the West in all its grit and grandeur.
Whether it was the galloping remuda of a ranch somewhere thundering out of backlit dust, a snow-encrusted cowboy riding into camp cradling a nearly frozen lost calf, or a dramatic view of the Lost River Range in his adopted state of Idaho, he trained his lens on the narrative of the West and came to be known as one of its foremost visual storytellers.
When he died on November 10, 2014, at age 65, Stoecklein left an exhaustive library of memorable images and countless friends made during decades of capturing the Western lifestyle that the outgoing former Easterner had embraced as his own.
A native of Pennsylvania, Stoecklein went west for the powder, following the ski-bum dream at age 20. After some success selling ski pictures, he began shooting other outdoor sports and soon found himself on assignment for clients such as Coca-Cola, Wrangler, Ford, Vogt Silversmiths, Budweiser, and Justin Boots. He eventually settled in Idaho, where he had a home (in Sun Valley), a ranch (the Bar Horseshoe just north of Macay in the Lost River Valley), and a family (wife Mary and three sons: Drew, Taylor, and Colby). It was there that Stoecklein would build his life and his small publishing empire of photo-filled calendars, datebooks, notecards, and dozens of coffee-table books.
His burgeoning business saw him constantly coming and going from the airport on photo assignments for a host of commercial clients such as 20th Century Fox, Dos Equis, and Stetson. But his favorite subjects were closer to home: the ranchers and the cowboys and cowgirls who were neighbors, friends, and colleagues.
In some ways, the West was his destiny. “He grew up in Pittsburgh and just hated the East Coast and always fantasized about the West. Hopalong Cassidy was his imaginary friend when he was a little kid,” says son Taylor. “I think it’s amazing that a guy from Pittsburgh could become the foremost photographer of the West. What made that possible? His passion. He really had a passion to get out there and take photos, make friends, and preserve the Western way of life.”
The photographer seemed to make friends wherever he went. “I like to think he had the heart and soul of a giant,” says Western entertainment icon Red Steagall, who became fast friends with Stoecklein as members of the exclusive California men’s equestrian social club Rancheros Visitadores. “There was nothing he wouldn’t tackle. Everything he did was professional and had a lot of heart and feeling. His images of the Western way of life have an emotion that will last forever.”
One of the things that meant the most to both of them, Steagall says, was the shows they did for charities: Born to This Land and Ride for the Brand. “We did those shows for museums and scholarship charities — his images and the music and poetry of myself and some friends. We had so much fun doing that.”
Steagall admires all of Stoecklein’s work but says his favorite book would have to be The Texas Cowboys (1997). “He did a lot on the Saunders Ranch and the ranches of other people I know. People in it are friends. It means a lot to me.”
Weatherford, Texas, rancher Tom B. Saunders IV, who wrote the text that accompanies Stoecklein’s photos in the book, remembers how the project came together and became a four-year collaboration with the “bighearted and beloved” Stoecklein.
“David was here on the ranch for about a week doing a shoot on cowboy gear,” Saunders recalls. “He was very entertaining and personable, and we got to be pretty good friends. He told me he was trying to do a book a year. I said I wouldn’t mind being involved in a book on the Texas cowboy (he’d already done one on the Idaho cowboy), and we partnered up on it.” The two visited 23 Texas ranches — each meeting the criterion of still being ranched by the same family after at least 100 years — in seven different regions of the vast state.
“When David got into something, he went all the way,” Saunders says. “What I really admired about him was we wouldn’t work on the weekends. He always left on Friday to go spend the weekends with his family. I just thought a lot of the man. David put his whole soul into it, and I think his photographs show it.”
Vogt Silversmiths founder Chet Vogt remembers Stoecklein’s many photo shoots at Vogt’s Three Creeks Ranch on the northern end of California’s Sacramento Valley. “People really gravitated to Dave,” Vogt says. “He was a big personality, but he was such a down-to-earth guy in his private life and a real talent. I have a whole line of books of his and a lot of his work on the walls.” Vogt’s favorite has to be a photograph called Afternoon With Grandpa. “It was taken here, of me and my grandson, who was just 4 then. You don’t see our faces, just his body and my legs, my hands around his back. It’s hanging right in the prime spot.”
The tenderness of that image might belie what Vogt describes as Stoecklein’s highly competitive nature. “He wanted to catch the biggest or most fish, shoot the biggest deer, kill the biggest elk, be the best roper,” Vogt says. “That competitive nature is probably what made him so talented as a photographer.”
But if he was fiercely competitive, he was also eager to share his expertise and taught workshops all across the West. Sons Taylor and Drew, both photographers in their own rights, plan to continue offering photography workshops. And they’ll advance their dad’s goal of doing more than simply capturing the West.
“It is my goal to document the West for generations to come,” David Stoecklein once said. “Maybe, just maybe, my photography can help slow down the destruction of this magnificent place. My hope is that folks who don’t understand the Western lifestyle will come to respect it, embrace it, and help preserve it.”