John “JL” “Grief” Hoskin is a big fan of taking the long way — “sometimes the wrong way” — to a destination. Using secondary and side roads, he says, has provided him with unexpected photographic opportunities — and a road map for his life.
Born in Calgary, Canada, he came by the nickname “Grief” early, when his second-grade teacher told his mother that all he did was bring him grief; the nickname stuck and he continues to use it professionally. And he came by his passion for the cowboy life honestly — if awkwardly.
“My family always had horses, and some of my most exciting times were helping out the local ranchers with the branding or gathering, although probably most of the time I was in the way,” Hoskin says. “My enthusiasm for horses as well as a passion for anything from the Old West or ‘cowboy’ occupied a lot of my time, to the point of enrolling in a bulldogging school. Broke my ankle on the first attempt and spent a month in a cast. Other attempts at trying to ride something that didn’t want to be rode resulted in the same outcome.”
He was in the oil business documenting oil-related subjects when he got interested in photographing cowboys, ranchers, and Western landscapes. Traveling on the job throughout Canada and states in the American West was, he says, an education and an eye-opener. “I saw that the ranchers were losing ground on a lot of issues and ... the next generation was moving away from the family business.”
Along the way, he met and attended workshops by the late photographer David Stoecklein, who became a dear friend and mentor. They shared a love of the West and preserving the lifestyle through their photography. And they shared a dry sense of humor, something that frequently comes across in Hoskin’s clever titles for his photos.
Eventually settling about 2,500 miles south of his native Calgary near Yuma, Arizona, Hoskin continues to document the West with earnestness and wit. “I am constantly inspired, now more than ever as I get older, by the incredible beauty and landscape of the West, the plight of the wild horse, action of rodeos, and the hardworking life of ranchers and cowboys, who I believe are quickly becoming extinct. I try to preserve this through my art and photographic stories.”
We asked Hoskin to share the back stories on a couple of his favorite images.
“Missed was taken at the Zapata Ranch in New Mexico. A group of us had been photographing some of the ranch horses being moved to different pastures, and I positioned myself lying down halfway under the fence to try and photograph them. I don’t remember the dog being anywhere near us at the time, and, in fact, I was more concerned that I might’ve put myself a little too close to these horses running directly at me. What I do remember is a lot of dust and feeling the ground rumble kind of like you do when you’re close to the railway tracks as a train goes by.
“It was probably two months later when I went back through my photographs that I discovered I had unexpectedly captured what turned out to be one of my most-viewed and commented-on photographs — the white horse fully twisted at a full gallop kicking out at 90 degrees, tail straight up, appearing to touch the white horse behind it; a dog appearing out of nowhere in the middle of the herd, untouched; and everything covered in dust. I chose the caption as the kicking horse was aiming for the dog, and missed.
“Locker Room was taken in 2016 at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo behind the chutes. I believe it was around 8 p.m., arena lights on, and dark thunderclouds starting to gather. When I first took this shot, it reminded me of the dugouts in baseball, and I thought about captioning it Rain Delay. The more I looked at it — the casualness of the cowboys, business as usual, all of them waiting or getting ready for their event, some apparently on the phone, one maybe feeling a little ill, their gear on the ground — it all reminded me of a locker room that I had opened the door to enter. I find new little details every time I go back to this.”
Photography: Courtesy JL Grief Photography
From our February/March 2020 issue.