Nelson Garber.
Nelson Garber.

In a digital age, this photographer keeps his methods classic.

Asked why he prefers the costly and time-consuming century-old process of palladium/platinum printing over digital, photographer Scott Baxter doesn’t hesitate: “I really enjoy working in a darkroom and the whole process you go through with film. If you hold a digital inkjet print in your hand versus a palladium one, there’s just a difference. Digital can be beautiful, but it’s ink that’s sprayed on top of paper. With palladium prints, it’s metals and things that are actually embedded in the paper, so there’s a depth in it that you just don’t get in digital.”

But the true depth in Baxter’s images comes from something far less technical.

He came to photography after getting a degree in history. It was while Baxter was teaching at a boarding school in Connecticut that a ninth-grade English student taught him how to develop black-and-white film. “I got hooked and quit teaching after a year to become a professional photographer.” His career gained momentum, and his lens work began taking him around the country. Baxter eventually planted himself in Arizona, where he has lived since 1982 working on both commercial and personal projects.

At the heart of his work — as well as his personal life — is a treasured relationship with the Southwest’s ranchers and Native Americans. Many of the ranchers are conservation-minded; some of the Native Americans are still living a traditional tribal lifestyle. Baxter’s hope is that his photographs will move people to understand the history and heritage of his subjects — their lifestyle, culture, and their value in society.

Sheila Carlson.
Sheila Carlson.

“I kind of see things in black-and-white. I like to keep things simple,” he says. But that doesn’t mean his projects aren’t ambitious. For his nearly 12-year 100 Years 100 Ranchers project, Baxter tracked down and shot black-and-whites of families who have ranched in Arizona since 1912 or earlier. His Top Hand project — platinum/palladium photographs of working cowboys, both male and female — ranged throughout nine western states. For his current series, he’s photographing the spiritual leaders of the 23 Native American tribes of Arizona.

For the 100 Ranchers project, Baxter initially visited about three-fourths of his subjects without a camera. “I would drive sometimes as much as five hours one way just to have lunch with them, because then, when I went back, it was a lot easier. I want it to be about the subject — about the people. It has to be authentic, accurate. When I know the person, the photograph comes to me naturally. Then I wait for an innate moment to push the shutter.”

The method has led to a lot of friendships in addition to photographs. There’s friend Nelson Garber on his horse, Shotgun, with his border collie, Turbo, captured at the end of the day on his remote ranch in Old Horse Springs, New Mexico, right after a dust storm. We notice the soft light that came with the calm; Baxter remembers that Garber had just handed his wife their newborn baby girl, whom he had cradled and covered in his arms when the wind kicked up.

There’s friend Sheila Carlson, on the Flying M near Flagstaff, Arizona, where she’s cowboyed for years. We see her long braids and big hat; Baxter can’t help but recall the inexplicable lens flare that ruined frame after frame when he shot her in her felt hat one cold January day and then the clean shots he got when he returned in the spring and got to photograph her in her signature palm-leaf hat that a recently deceased boyfriend particularly liked.

Eagle People (Jones Benally).
Eagle People (Jones Benally).

And there’s friend Jones Benally, wearing a headdress along with his many other hats as Navajo medicine man, silversmith, and hoop dancer. We see an elderly Native American gentleman looking as wise as his many years; Baxter recalls him as the accomplished man who years ago made that much-seen concho belt for The Doors’ Jim Morrison and who recently transfixed all the young hoop-dancing competitors who had finished their short routines, and then gathered around in a foot-tapping circle of awe and respect when the octogenarian delivered a 12-minute master-class performance.

“For me, the story trumps the photograph,” Baxter says. “The story behind the photograph is really what’s important. It’s all about the people.”

Find Scott Baxter’s book, 100 Years 100 Ranchers, on his website.

From the February/March 2017 issue.