In March 2020, Lauren Grabelle moved onto her partner’s ranch in Montana, immersing herself in the land that his family has maintained for four generations. Located in a grizzly bear migration corridor, a forest bordered by mountains, their acres are shared with top apex predators that include mountain lions, wolves, coyotes and, of course, grizzly bears.
Unlike the popular aesthetic associated with nature photography, full of saturated colors and compositions that recall a Windows desktop wallpaper, Grabelle’s images show how grittiness is a necessary counterpoint for the warmth of home on the ranch. The Last Man, a title she gives to both her partner and this project, comprises both respect and vulnerability, all while driving home the feeling of isolation this land imposes.
In this interview for LensCulture, Cat Lachowskyj speaks to Grabelle about the origins of the project, life on the ranch, and the creative decisions that led to the formation of this work.
Cat Lachowskyj: When you first moved onto the ranch in March 2020, with the intention to stay indefinitely, how did you feel in that space? I assume at this point, it didn’t quite yet feel like home—it was the starting point.
Lauren Grabelle: When I started making these pictures, I didn’t really know what the project was about. A photographer friend of mine actually pushed me to submit this series to LensCulture’s HOME Prize, and the theme helped me stop and think about what this project was actually about. It had always been about him, The Last Man, and then during the pandemic shutdown when I first moved onto the ranch, it transformed into a story about the many animals on the ranch, but it had yet to be about me on the land.
CL: What was your relationship to the place like before you moved onto the ranch?
LG: We were neighbors when I began photographing The Last Man, then we became friends, and then we became romantically involved. I started photographing him because I found him fascinating. When I moved onto the ranch, I became fixated with photographing all the animals. Because my move coincided with the sudden lockdowns, even when I went into town, I couldn’t see people’s faces because everyone was wearing masks. The only faces I could study were the faces of animals, and the face of The Last Man. It was an interesting time, because I felt closer to the animals than to people.
CL: Do you think the pandemic made your move more challenging?
LG: Before I moved onto the ranch, I asked him, “What do you think will be the hardest part for me when I live there?” He responded: “The isolation.” At the time, I wasn’t too bothered by that prospect, because I could drive into Missoula once or twice a month to go to an exhibition opening, and choose to see people every so often, on my own terms. But then the pandemic hit, and all of that stopped. Suddenly, our version of isolation made me feel very fortunate. We weren’t cramped in a tiny apartment—we had things to do and lots to see. And we live amongst the top apex predators, which has been incredibly interesting for me.
CL: This part of your story fascinates me. How often do you see predators, and what do you do in those situations?
LG: A few weeks ago, The Last Man went to bed early and I was sitting on the porch, with the cat sleeping next to me and the dog in the grass out front. I looked up and saw two giant grizzly bears 40 feet away, heading towards the barn where we have two sheep. As I got up, the dog woke up and started barking, and the bears turned around and wandered away. The next day we found their tracks and determined which way they went, heading off the ranch. That sort of thing can be cool to experience, but I’m also a runner and I have to run with bear spray and be on constant high alert, and bring our dog with me. Sometimes a dog’s bark will not deter a bear, but if they’re just wandering, they’ll go away. We also have mountain lions and coyotes that we hear almost every night.
CL: Your partner has maintained this land on his own for a number of years, but it’s also been in his family for four generations. Can you tell me a bit about the intergenerational energy coursing through it?
LG: When The Last Man was young, they had dairy cows, and his mother had a cheese factory, so he had to milk a herd of 200 cows twice a day, before school and in the evening. Today he has beef cows, which is quite different. The land was settled by his grandfather’s uncle and aunt, and it was a homestead. It is many hundreds of acres, we are up against the mountains and the forest, and his grandfather used to trap and trade with members of the Blackfeet Nation. So there is a lot of history here that contributes to his knowledge of how to maintain things and figure his way out of certain situations.
CL: Your photographs aren’t romantic or picturesque depictions of nature. Instead, you capture the complexity of living in the wilderness. There’s a raw feeling to your images that strays from the typical aesthetic we might associate with this sort of visual story.
LG: It’s interesting you say that, because reaching that point was definitely subconscious. Of course, I’ve taken tons more photos that didn’t make the final edit, but it’s also interesting to note that 7 out of the 10 images were shot on my iPhone. Sure, if I’m on an assignment, I’ll shoot with my Nikon, but my iPhone is the camera I have with me all the time. I think my ability to react to visual moments as they arise makes things feel more real.
CL: The decision to make the images black and white also contributes. What compelled you to make everything monochrome?
LG: Honestly, The Last Man is a pretty rough guy, so from the beginning the images always felt gritty. I was pumping the clarity slider because I felt like it matched him to the landscape. Everything is rough here—it’s not exactly rich people ranching in Montana. Owning and ranching land is hardly profitable, and it’s incredibly rough to maintain.
CL: In your description of the project, you say that you are searching for yourself in a land that isn’t about you. What do you mean by that?
LG: I’m not a rancher, and I’m not a farmer. I have some outdoor skills, but they involve GoreTex and fleece, which do not apply to this place; those things will be shredded apart when you accidentally back into barbed wire. My old hiking clothes are sitting dormant and I have new apparel, like muck boots for the swamp. It’s a different outdoor lifestyle, and I’m learning how to castrate calves and chase cows and bulls without fear. I’ve lived in Montana long enough, but this is a different game.
CL: Despite that, when I look back at your previous work, somehow this series feels the most personal out of everything you’ve done.
LG: That’s interesting, because I never would have thought it would turn out that way. When I look at the subject matter, I think: it’s not my horse, it’s not my dog.
CL: Speaking of the dog, can you explain what’s happening in the photo Maggie’s Ritual?
LG: Maggie is a border collie who doesn’t have enough cattle or sheep to keep her busy. If you try to start up anything with an engine—a chainsaw, the four-wheel or the ATV—she has this ritual where she starts barking and running like crazy, and runs and jumps up a tree and bites it. I’ve never seen a dog do something like this in my life until I met Maggie, and I knew I had to capture it somehow. It’s the image the people are most perplexed by, because they have no reference for what’s going on.
CL: Why is it important for you to share this work with others? Particularly because it’s so personal.
LG: At the risk of sounding selfish, it’s less about what I want other people to get out of the images, and more about what I want to get out of sharing them. My parents wouldn’t let me go to art school, so I didn’t, and I got a degree in Anthropology instead. But when I went out into the world, I quickly realized I was an artist. When I moved to Montana, I doubled down on this idea; it was liberating, because Montana didn’t have a lot of distractions. There aren’t miles of strip malls, there’s just you in nature.
Part of it is about proving that I’m an artist, and part of it is the perpetual fear of being misunderstood. To me, photography is like a portal for other people to see through my eyes—it’s my way of expressing myself, since I’m not very good with words. I also want to share this unique place with people, particularly in these politically divisive times. It’s about sharing another perspective in a polarized time where things are, ironically, not so black and white.
Editor’s note: We discovered Lauren’s candid images of rural life in LensCulture’s HOME International Photography Prize 2021. For more inspiring discoveries, check out all the other winners, jurors’ picks and finalists here.