I am not the first person to love this photo by Sam Abell. As it so happens, I’m probably the one millionth.
If you’re not familiar with Sam Abell, today is your lucky day. He’s one of the best photographers in the business. He has several books under his belt and has been a contract photographer for National Geographic for over thirty-three years.
The first time I saw this photo was in 2015, while taking a photographic workshop with Brett Erickson, a disciple of Abell’s. Brett loves cowboy culture and is known for his rodeo imagery. He showed us this photo as an example of Abell’s ability to craft pictures with spectacular complexity, layering and symmetry. But most of all, Brett wanted to emphasize the importance of timing. Henri Cartier Bresson calls it “the decisive moment.” I’m less poetic. I say Abell nailed it.
Cattle branding is not a slow, relaxed process, things happen in a flash and at it’s very best it’s controlled chaos, making this shot even more incomprehensible.
Look at the individual stories being told within this one frame. In the foreground, a man with a scalpel in his mouth gets ready to castrate the calf in front of him. As the eye moves back, another cowboy grabs a calf and behind that, a cowboy on horseback watches. A second before or after this moment, and the men and cows would turned into an overlapping mish-mosh of man and beast, minimizing the visual impact.
I also love the muted colors from the overcast sky and the dark red pail adding a pop of color and balance.
What do you think of this photo?
Let me know in the comments below.