John Balsom, Diamond Cross

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Libraryman (here). Offset printed clothbound hardcover, 9.45 x 11.7 inches, 80 pages, with 51 color and black-and-white reproductions. Includes a tipped-in image on the front cover with typography; a preface and note written by the photographer, as well as a quote by Jane Golliher. Edited and designed by Tony Cederteg. In an edition of 700 copies, and a special edition of 25 numbered copies with signed original print. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: I was about twelve years old when I saw a horse collapse. It was some July afternoon and the riding hall was steaming. Trotting along the boards, the horses were sweating so much their bodies dripped foam. Towards the end of the class, one horse broke down. The girl, on its back, quick enough to jump off, landed unharmed in the soft, green sand. The horse, however, wouldn’t move. There are certain images that stay with you for life. Like that slender, wet body grasping for air, wheezing, as the teacher began to yell and beat it with its whip. The horse eventually got up, and the teacher lost his license. How does one possibly heal the kind of trauma he had inflicted – not just on us, but the animal?

Grant Golliher is a man who ‘repairs’ horses. Over the past decades, he has developed a form of training and trust-building that is commonly known as horse whispering. Most of the animals that make their way to the Diamond Cross Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, have suffered from various forms of neglect and abuse. Co-owned by Golliher and his wife Jane, Diamond Cross is one of the last historical, working cattle and horse ranches in Teton county – and a place that provides healing for horses and humans alike.

Ironically, the British photographer John Balsom first learned about Diamond Cross through a hairdresser based in LA, who introduced him to Luke Long, one of the Golliher’s sons. Long told Balsom not only about his parents, who are third-generation ranchers, and his father’s horsemanship, but also about the history of the land, the increasing obstacles to compete with corporate ranching, and the importance of their Western heritage, generally associated with cowboy-culture. The two men kept in touch, and about a year after their first encounter, the timing felt right, and Balsom went to visit the ranch. Not knowing what to expect, he was intrigued by the opportunity of seeing real-life cowboys as much as damaged animals being helped by humans. What he found, though, was unlike anything he had ever experienced, or imagined.

Making his living as a commercial photographer, Balsom is used to the fast pace of a tight shooting schedule and the clear outlines of a project. Diamond Cross was different. Arriving, as he recalled, “blind” and without any formed ideas, he did not take photographs right away. Instead, Balsom used the first days of his one-week stay to adapt to a different rhythm: one that is set by the rising and setting sun, the vastness of the land and sky, and the needs of the animals. Following the Gollihers and Long through their pastures, barns, and stables, Balsom also met their family of ranch hands, including some local teenagers, who help-out for longer and shorter periods of time, depending on what the season requires. But the first photographs didn’t come easy.

“Cowboys are a proud people, who are not nervous or shy in front of the camera,” Balsom told me, “nor would they be intimidated by a guy like me. […] But I wanted them to get used to me being around. I didn’t want to direct them. I didn’t want them to think I was just a tourist, who comes in, takes what he needs, and leaves. I didn’t want to feel like that either. Either way, if I had, none of this would have happened. I would have been forgotten the moment I left.”

What “happened” – after initial hesitance turned into brief, yet friendly conversations – was that a few of the cowboys wanted to talk to him, because they had seen “sadness in [his] eyes.” Apparently, they had seen correctly, and Balsom agreed to a gathering that included local preachers. “I am not a religious person, but I knew they did not intend to convert me. I could tell they genuinely cared.” What the preachers offered, instead, were words of wisdom and repair; one of them sharing his own story of his abusive father, and how he managed to forgive him, and heal himself – something his siblings could not. It is the very essence of this experience that altered the way in which Balsom looked at and, consequently, photographed Diamond Cross and its people and horses. It made him realize that he had found the heart of a personal project.

Unfolding as a contemplative sequence of photographs in color and black-and-white, Diamond Cross is not a typical cowboy book. It doesn’t reiterate the tropes of the lonesome, rope-swinging hero, who most of us know from Western movies, Marlboro commercials, or more recent photographs by Kurt Markus. Neither does it intentionally dismantle these tropes by documenting the hardships or modern alterations of traditional ranch life, like Karoliina Paatos’s heartfelt American Cowboy.

Organized as single or double-page spreads, that range from full-bleed to the size of a postcard, Diamond Cross is an ode to gentleness and to the power of grace. Yet it takes a patient eye to discern these qualities – not because Balsom’s images of people, landscapes, and horses are lacking of specificity or imagination, but because they are non-descriptive. They reveal, but they don’t tell. This is mainly due to the distinct difference in mood and atmosphere of Balsom’s photographs: the monochromes speaking of a still and kind remoteness between the photographer and his subjects, while the color images expand in feeling and motion. And in doing so, these photographs make themselves vulnerable to be mistaken for clichés. Yes, it is as easy and comforting to get lost in the majestic landscape with its clearly delineated mountain profiles, scrubby prairie grass, and mist glistening in the half-light of early morning; as it is elevating to linger on the horses – herded or alone, with riders and without, but all of them strong, healthy, and as free as a domesticated horse can possibly be. But when you look at the portraits, whether it is the beautifully weathered faces of Jane and Grant Golliher, the often-pensive gaze of Long, or the discretely wanting, at times daring, looks of the young ranch workers, you sense they are real. They feel honest, partly because they are grounded in context with the land, the ranch, the animals, and the work they do. Partly because of and not despite their cowboy attire.

Balsom’s photographs are strikingly beautiful. And the more time I spend with Diamond Cross, the more I come to understand my own initial skepticism, not of the project or the book itself, but the beauty of its images. I’m inclined to believe that my skepticism is grounded in two distinct causes. The first relates to art, politics, and forms of advocacy that, for decades, we’ve been taught, cannot be beautiful if they aim to be truthful and effective – that beauty, instead of inspiring empathy, distracts. The second reason relates to photography itself, that is, commercial and fashion photography in particular – meaning advertising. Designed and conceived to sell a product, items of clothing, a lifestyle, or a brand – a fantasy – these images not only speculate, but operate on profit; a profit that generates and perpetuates the disenfranchising realities upon which these products are produced (Armani and the Camorra sweatshops, to give a simplistic, sadly true, example). Once upon a time, photographic genres, including fashion photography, followed more or less delineated visual tropes. These tropes, however, have been circulating across various photographic genres for a while now. If you add this circulation to today’s exploding amount and presence of images in general, there is one substantial risk: we may become sloppy, at best, and illiterate, at worst, in reading and understanding not only the visual tropes, but photographs themselves.

Why am I telling you this? Because I believe that sloppiness and visual illiteracy can cause everything from misunderstanding to misplaced skepticism to fear. They can make us beauty-blind, and numb to the pleasure and empathetic potential that beauty can carry. A potential that “Diamond Cross”, both the ranch and the book, so gently advocate – and that Balsom most revealingly captured in a series of photographs, which are neither portraits, nor landscapes, nor details, but moments in between. These images speak of delicacy and attentiveness from the photographer as much as his subjects, and often involve images of hands or the reactions they cause. Hands that carefully tighten a saddle’s clasp, that don’t pull but loosen the reins, that lovingly rest on horse’s mane, or disappear under another’s jaw, ears cocked by curiosity attesting to the apparent ease – the trust – between the people and the animals.

I have a suspicion that Balsom, initially, may have been a skeptic as well, not of beauty, but the kind of vulnerability it entails. When first working with Tony Cederteg (who provided a wonderful edit and elegant design to Diamond Cross) on the book’s content, Balsom didn’t want to include his personal story. Cederteg, however, half-jokingly insisted that without the personal story, there wouldn’t be a book. Balsom cowboyed-up.

At the end of his text, which now prefaces the book, we read: “When I left the ranch, I took a domestic flight to Denver where I called my father, after many years, to tell him he had a grandson, and we met in London four days later.” Among the things we may learn from Diamond Cross is a lesson of strength – not as restraint, but as a tactful way of searching.

Collector’s POV: John Balsom does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the photographer via his website.

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