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Monday, November 16, 2009

Old West Color

David Stoecklein brings a timeless cowboy allure to his photography by combining classic aesthetics with his own unique style

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There’s an old cowboy adage that goes, “Talk less and say more,” and David Stoecklein does just that. Based out of Idaho, he has photographed amazingly iconic images of the American West for more than 20 years. Astoundingly, whether it’s of a modern cowboy or an expansive Southwestern landscape, his photographic style is instantly recognizable and remarkably consistent. If you see a Stoecklein image, you know immediately who took it, and thanks to a keen mastery of natural light and environmental ambience, the images he crafts have an almost ageless feel, as if they could have been scenes from a century ago. Stoecklein says modestly that his work is simply the result of the way he sees. In reality, he has labored long and hard to perfect his photography. Here, he shares with us a few of the steps that help him see the world the way he does and a few of the technical processes that help him to produce images that stand the test of time.

Bad Weather Means Good Shots
Many elements of Stoecklein’s classic imagery can be achieved only in the real world. He finds that a lot of the appeal of his images comes from the time of day at which he’s working and the quality of the light. The “magic hour” just after sunrise and just before sunset is ideal for achieving Stoecklein’s classic look. Thanks to the unique angle of the sun’s rays penetrating the atmosphere, the light is softer, but colors and hues are stronger. The dramatic backdrop of the sun rising and setting also adds impact to backgrounds. Stoecklein’s absolute favorite time to shoot is during a storm, though. When the weather is at its most extreme, the shots will come off with the most atmosphere.

“If you have stormy weather,” he says, “there’s a lot of cloud cover and stuff like that, and then you can shoot all day. The lighting is different, but it’s beautiful, and you can build contrast with the clouds and the storminess of the sky. The worst conditions to work in, though, are just bluebird days with a beautiful blue sky and bright light. There’s no story, no atmosphere, no contrast, and there’s no drama. It’s just harder to tell a story in that kind of lighting.”

When asked what he does when he has unfavorable conditions, Stoecklein laughingly says that you go shoot in a barn or you go to the bar. Getting a classic look can be the result of creating an atmosphere as well as reacting to one, though, and Stoecklein employs a variety of trusted tricks that provide him with dramatic shots despite the environment. He looks for odd or extreme angles that add dimension to an image’s composition. He also uses a lot of side- and backlighting, even to the point of silhouetting his subjects, to add contrast and a graphic appeal to an image.

After so much practice shooting for so many years, Stoecklein also is capable of creating an atmosphere out of the resources available to him. He often adds dust to an image by using a fan or a leaf blower, or even by riling up horses (or his assistants) so that they kick up dust. Dust in the air instills the feeling of the Old West in images, and it also helps to diffuse natural light in a direct-light situation.

People say to me, ‘I know your look. I can just look in a magazine and I just know it’s you,’” says Old West photographer David Stoecklein. “I wish I could teach that; I wish I could pass that on, but whatever that is, it’s just me. I’m influenced by everything that I see and feel in life, and I think everybody should be. Every time you go through a magazine, there are always things that are visually stimulating and can stir your creative juices. Hopefully, you go on and make your own look, but there are times when you say, ‘I’ve never thought of things like that before!’ Then it pushes you to go out and create something with the same feeling, or something even better, with that ‘type’ of lighting or that ‘kind’ of color.

Says Stoecklein, “You can’t rely on Mother Nature to be exactly what you want. The whole thing about natural lighting is being able to pick the spot and see it and feel it. A lot of the time, it’s being able to direct your subject into the lighting situation that you see. By using backlighting or sidelighting or the shadows, you search for the piece of light that’s going to light up your subject just the way you need it.”


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