Mountain men still thrive and photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been documenting them in stunning portraits at rendezvous and the places where they live and work across the West.
The mountain man has been an integral part of the West since before the Louisiana Purchase. (Hey, and when it comes down to it, that individual in-step with the natural world and wanting nothing to do with the regulations of normal society is also the atypical Mountain Gazette reader.) Based in Salt Lake City, Utah, photographer Nicole Morgenthau has been traveling across the West and attending gatherings such as the Rocky Mountain National Rendezvous getting to know present-day mountain men and taking haunting portraits that feel vintage and yet transcend time. She took the time to share some of her best work with us and let us know what it has been like to get under the skin of mountain men.
Tell us about this project. Mountain men? They still exist?
“As with any other group/ subculture, there are different levels of commitment. Most of the mountain men I know are teachers, have a wife, a few kids and two cars in the garage. These folks enjoy the history and often camp in a primitive way. Very few of the mountain men I know live the life here in 2015. Oliver is the only one I’ve met that sleeps in a shelter with no electricity or running water; under a buffalo hide and works as a tanner.”
How do you achieve the quality in these photos that makes them feel as if they came from the 19th century, not just technically speaking but also in the personalities you have captured?
“Honestly, it’s all right there—teepees in huge fields of sage, people in deerskin wearing old trade beads, dogs on hemp ropes. I feel as a documentary photographer, I am good at sniffing out characters. I’m very outgoing, so if someone looks interesting, I just approach them and nine out of ten people are happy to participate in my project, and tell me how they got here.
As for the vintage quality, I look for textures that will sing in Black & White- canvas tents, deerskin, suntanned skin all work well. Sometimes I will manipulate an image for days before it’s where I want it. I love making a good sky a great sky, and making a weathered face look like a topographical map of the Himalyas. I enjoy writing captions too, but want the pictures alone to tell a story.”
You say you don’t like to shoot landscapes? But these men seem part of their landscape. Can you capture the essence of a place through people?
“Great question. I spend most of my free time outside, on a trail. I adore wide open spaces, but always want to stick a human in the landscape if I’m taking a picture. These men are for sure part of the landscape. They rely on it heavily from the animals they hunt for meat and hides, the quills that are used for adornment, and wood used to start fires for warmth and cooking. There are mountain men in almost every state. So far, I’ve stayed close to home, but I think the rendezvous in Texas, Oaklahoma, Virginia would show a similar a very different setting. While camping in Texas or Virginia sounds unpleasant to me, the varied landscape would tell a mountain man of that regions story for sure. Ok, now I kind of want to check one out in a different region.”
Any good stories about hanging out with these characters?
“Um, where to start… There are a lot of marriage proposals. Additionally, I hear about a lot of divorce too. People have divulged about their affairs, tumor on scrotums, you know, the norm. Sometimes I bring beer (othertimes, I drink theirs) and sit and talk to people for an hour or so before taking their picture. I think photographers, hair dressers, massage therapist, bar tenders are all the same in that we are approachable; people are comfy telling me their story. I’ve gone to some tiny rendezvous, where it was pouring rain. All we do is talk. Sometimes I come home with 2,000 pictures other times 20. I’d rather be a friend telling their story than anything. That’s my approach to photography.”
Do you think the West as we imagine it is disappearing?
“Yes. Ground that was once covered in sage is now home to Kohls, Costco, Home Depot. Mountain men and cowboys are on their smart phones, so yeah the west as we imagine it is disappearing. I think a lof of people love the romantic notion of the west, I do. But as land get sold off, there are just less jobs for people that work the land and encompass our picture of life in the west. It isn’t gone, but shrinking for sure.”
Now scroll down and enjoy the stunning, all-mountain-man work of Nicole Morgenthau (click on any photo to enlarge):
“Ron ‘Maddog’ Johnson. He had a tear in his eye as the American flag was being raised. If I could keep my mouth shut I would, but I can’t so I didn’t: I asked him what made him sad. He said he’d lost quite a few friends at war and felt bad that he always dodged the draft. The cogs in my brain were spinning for something better than ‘sorry man.’ As we looked west at a sky so cobalt blue and an afternoon so incredibly beautiful, I said ‘You were meant to be here, to honor the fallen, to stand amongst friends old and brand new in this perfect place.’ We hugged, in a dad-and-daughter kinda way, a human way.”
“Oliver McCloskey of Cedar City, Utah. Brain tanner of deer skin and other game since he was 10 years old. Tanning and the hunting shirts and mosassins he makes from the hide has been his soul source of income for 15 years.”
“This is Dr. Scott Olsen aka ‘Doc Ivory.’ He’s a dentist three days a week, mountain man the rest of the time. Doc commutes into the small town of Dillon, Mont., to keep people’s mouths in top shape.”
A Salt Lake City based photographer documenting life in the west from cowboys to climbers, Nicole takes pictures because that is what she loves and knows how to do. Nicole contributes growing up in one of the most Uninspiring Town in America (a category she created) to her creativity. “We had to dream big; flat, suburban New Jersey was not inspiring,” she says, adding that, she would not trade that experience for anything in the world. Suburbia gave her the desire to travel and meet people of all walks of life– with camera in hand. Nicole has a keen ability to connect with her subjects regardless of age, race, or status and believes, “We are all unique and that alone is worth documenting.” See more of Morgenthau’s work at www.nicolemorgenthau.com.
Intro photo at top of page: Oliver McCloskey & Scott “Doc Ivory” Olsen. These two have ridden long distances on horseback to primitive rendezvous together for 10 years.