Barbara Van Cleve describes herself as a “true-blue Montanan.”
Having grown up on her family’s Lazy K Bar ranch on the eastern slopes of the Crazy Mountains north of Big Timber, she was enchanted by Western life.
At age 11, she received a Brownie Junior box camera. Her father, rancher and writer Paul “Spike” Van Cleve III, encouraged her innate creativity.
“Even though he was a writer, he looked and saw,” she said. “He taught me to see mirages in January when we were looking down-country to the east. The sun beating on the snow and the heat waves build up and create mirages -- and kind of a soft haze.
“Dad said, ‘Think of it as frozen clouds, kiddo.’ And here are these crystals of light dancing around like a fog.”
Van Cleve is internationally known for her photography; it has appeared in U.S. embassies in Russia and China, as well as the historic Montana State Capitol building, Big Timber’s Grand Hotel, and a plethora of private and public galleries. Her first large book of photography, Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women (of which she is also author), carried on as a decade-long exhibit after it was published in 1995.
Van Cleve’s newest large photo collection spans several decades; the oldest photo featured was taken circa 1950 when she was in her early teens.
“My dad and I were on a hunting pack trip,” she tells of the story behind the photograph. “And we made camp in a beautiful glade, well into the foothills of the Crazies. And the next morning we woke up with more than a foot of snow on our sleeping bags. My dad said, ‘Well, we might as well go pack it up. We won’t be able to do any serious hunting.’
“And we’re getting ready to start off. The wind that had come up all of a sudden became a (ground) blizzard. I said, ‘Oh dad, just a minute, I’ve got to get a photograph.’”
He said, “Well, get a wiggle on. It is colder than a monkey’s tail in the Klondike.”
Van Cleve’s timing was impeccable, whether it was in the mountains, at the rodeo, in Baja California, Mexico, or somewhere in between. Though she is self-taught, Van Cleve took courses in dye-transfer, film-making and printing in Chicago; gained experience working as a freelance photographer for textbook companies and a stock photo agency before owning her own agency; and earned a master’s degree in English literature in only nine months.
Every summer, Van Cleve returns to Big Timber. She spends the rest of her time in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The 216-page book, Pure Quill, captures decades of life just as Van Cleve saw it, with commentary by author Susan Hallsen McGarry.
Available at barbaravancleve.com and amazon.com