Dylan Coulter: It's all about the concept

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

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Dylan Coulter, a photographer whose work has graced many billboards and front pages of magazines, and whose portfolio contains pictures of some of the biggest names in sport, has turned to home for his latest project and made photographs of his great aunts and uncles, the last cowboys.

The American West is a subject that has attracted many photographers and as chance would have it the birth of photography coincided with the development of what came to be known as the Wild West. The two became entwined, with photography and the cinema creating a mythological world where the figure of the cowboy became a central icon as the wilderness was "tamed".

The days of the cattle drive are long gone, but today the cowboy still works the land and looks after the cattle.

Dylan's work is a series of studio and environmental portraits of second generation ranchers who followed in the footsteps of their father, raising cattle in and around Hells Canyon, a rugged region that borders the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

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I asked Dylan what was the inspiration for the series The Last Cowboys?

"The inspiration for the project was twofold really - one, I wanted to learn more about my relatives that had been raising cattle for several generations in a remote part of the United States. Two, to document a way of life that is quickly fading from the American landscape."

How did being connected, indeed related, to your subjects change the way you approached the series - as opposed to your commercial work?

"Yes, I think my approach, to some degree, was different. I would say collectively there was some reticence by my great-uncles and aunts to participate from the standpoint that sitting for portraits is a bit out their day to day routine.

"Going in I knew I had been afforded an unique opportunity that an outsider would not have been given. As I mentioned before, I was initially motivated largely in part to learn more about my family heritage. As I moved further along in my research and preparation for the shoot, I realized that in addition to documenting their lives, this, also, was a unique opportunity to tell a story about a way of life that many people lived in the Western United States for several generations, but now was rapidly becoming less and less common. Obviously, the symbolism shed light on a bigger story of the tremendous cultural and economic shifts that have happened in the United States in a shockingly short period of time."

The pictures maybe personal and what drew me to Dylan's photography, but looking at his wider body of work you can soon see his dedication to detail and maximum impact within the frame. His pictures of mud spattered members of the Oregon Project are a good example of this and a lesson for anyone looking to use the studio to good effect.

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I asked Dylan what gave him the idea of shooting them in that way and if he could outline a little of the technique?

"Often in sports the prototypical body of an athlete is associated with that of an American football player or perhaps, in England, a Rugby player, bulk muscle you might say, but the physiques of these elite runners were the exactly opposite. I found this compelling and to my eye their body type conveyed strength and power.

"We decided to embrace this and make the portraits very much about their physique and expression. Showing, rather than obscuring their physiques. Additionally, in preparing for the shoot I learned that much of their training is done on dirt trails, in the hills surrounding Portland, Oregon, USA.

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"Portland, like London, has a damp climate much of the year, thus the inspiration for the mud. I worked with an incredibly talented make-up artist, Paola LaMorticella and she did a fantastic job. The Oregon Project portraits were selected for both the Photo District News and Communication Arts 2011 Photo Annuals, arguably the two most prestigious photo annual is the US, so that was wonderful recognition to receive."

Your work is technically complex and some requires lots of post production, especially some of the Olympics work. Do you pre-visualise those and stick to the path set out or do they develop as shoots and production take place?

"My work overall is a fairly even mix between entirely composed in-camera and post-production intensive images. I really enjoy the balance and unique challenges of both. In some ways I've found relying on compositing and post-production can be a trap and make for a lack lustre image. Sometimes, though, creative or logistical considerations require post production - such as it's a group shot when not everyone is available at the same time. In those situations, I fully embrace it.

"As you suggest, pre-visualation is key as is technical planning. Of course, I always leave the door open during a shoot for the unexpected or allowing myself to change course as needed."

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Do you feel more at home in the studio or on location?

"It's always nice to spend the day outside - or perhaps not always pleasant, but certainly memorable - a night shoot in Seoul, Korea, during the dead of winter a couple years ago comes to mind. On the other hand, studio shoots are interesting technically in that you can control conditions more precisely, lighting in particular. Overall though, I enjoy both. The biggest motivator for me, with all shoots, is the concept."

What's next?

"Well, I have a number of commercial projects shooting soon that I'm quite excited about. I'd also like to see The Last Cowboys in a gallery setting and have had preliminary discussions toward that end.

"In terms of new personal projects, I'm preparing to undertake the second portion of In The Nineties: Portraits of a Certain Age, an ongoing portrait series of people over the age of ninety. Aging is becoming a larger part of the collective dialogue as people live longer in increasingly vital ways and I've found it interesting to explore this. I started showing the initial part of this project a few months ago and it has been well received.

"Lastly, I'm undertaking another personal project here in New York as well as developing my first film project which we hope to begin shooting in the fall."