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Northern Montana's Hi-Line
Photo: Montana Cowboys
Photograph by William Albert Allard
The Moment  William Albert Allard
At Home on the Range By the time this photograph of the IL Ranch cow camp in Nevada was made in 1979, Bill Allard had been photographing the American West for 13 years. Allard, who grew up in Minnesota prairie land, was smitten by high mountain meadows, the subdued palette of sage greens and beiges, and the men who worked there—cowboys with names like Floyd and Smitty who knew how a cow thinks and could pick out a horse from a herd with the flip of a rope. In 2007 the love affair became a commitment: Allard bought a house in Missoula, Montana, and he and his wife, Ani, now divide the year between there and Charlottesville, Virginia. —Cathy Newman

Behind the Lens

Let's talk about what is going on in the photograph.

We'd been drinking whiskey the night before, and no one was doing a lot of talking. These buckaroos are going to get their horses shortly and round up cattle. I'd been camping with them and wandered off to take the picture. The empty chair is where I was sitting. The campfire is the social center of cow camp. Every night you end up around it, and you'll be there again in the morning.

What made you fall in love with the West?

I love the clarity of the air, the vastness of the space. The West has a world of sky. You can look around and see three or four different weather patterns unfold.

You've spent a lot of time with cowboys. Why do you admire them?

It's their independence. You can pick up your saddle and say: OK, I'm going somewhere else. A lot of us think we can do that, but very few of us do.

If, as you once said, "one thinks of a photograph as a one-act play," where in the script would this scene be taking place?

It could be the beginning of the play. Or the end. It's up to you to fill in the rest.