Portrait of a Cowboy as a Young Buckaroo

Weston and his horse Cowboy, nr. Santa Fe, New Mexico 2014 Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian
Weston and his horse Cowboy, nr. Santa Fe, New Mexico 2014 Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian

Making a successful portrait is one of my greatest challenges and joys as a photographer. To look into the eyes of a subject and catch a glimpse of his deeper self (some might say soul), and to convey that in a photograph, are two parts of a profound experience. Some subjects, as you might imagine, will reveal little about themselves. Others are more open, and when you look into their eyes you get a real sense of who they are and the road they have travelled. In the former instance you photograph the subject’s appearance—what the eyes and hair look like, and so forth. In the latter you have an opportunity to capture the subject’s true self—what some may call their essence.

Weston is a young boy who wants to be a cowboy. I like that ambition, and I like Weston. I had photographed his father several years ago, before Weston was born. My image “Sparrow and her Cowboy Richard,” which depicts Richard and his horse against a salmon-colored adobe wall, with beautiful light raking across the scene as the horse takes a bow, has become one of my best-known photographs. Knowing Richard as I do, I also know that Weston has some really big boots to fill.

Sparrow and her Cowboy Richard, San Marcos, New Mexico 2004 Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian
Sparrow and her Cowboy Richard, San Marcos, New Mexico 2004 Photograph by ©Craig Varjabedian

During this shoot I made several exposures of Weston and his horse, appropriately named Cowboy. His father and brother and their horses were located outside the camera position, and every movement and sound they made were of great interest to both Weston and Cowboy. Cowboy liked to move around as horses do, frequently changing his position in relation to the camera to eat some of the abundant weeds, all the while keeping an anxious eye on the other horses and their riders as they rode away from us. Trying to manage the composition of this photograph with the subjects moving and changing unpredictably was a real challenge.

There is a moment when I make a photograph where time seems to suspend itself. Within that instant everything grows silent. Things not important to the photograph seem to disappear and sometimes a profound connection is made with the subject. I remember during this shoot the moment when it seemed as if a door had opened, and I held Weston’s complete attention, if only for a second, and got an affecting glimpse into this young cowboy. And just as I was about to trip the shutter, Cowboy turned in anxious response to the whinny of a distant horse. I released the shutter and knew at that moment I had made a significant photograph.

Perhaps as photographers we see a piece of ourselves in the subjects of our photographs or maybe we bring something of ourselves to the photographs when we view them—both possibilities sound good to me. There is a piece of me that many years ago truly wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to learn how to rope, brand, have a six-shooter, and ride my horse on a cattle drive. So when I look at this portrait of Weston, I see a portrait of a young cowboy to be sure, and I also see a small piece of my past—my former self reflected in this young boy’s eyes. I find myself a little envious, too, of the life that may unfold for this young buckaroo.