On the Land: Creatures, Cowboys, and Developers

Jan 16 - March 10, 2006

On the Land:

Creatures, Cowboys, and Developers

Jan 16 - March 10, 2002

On the Land: Creatures, Cowboys, and Developers portrays present-day cowboys of the East Bay and their vanishing way of life through the dramatic and beautiful photographs of Matt O’Brien.  Accompanying the photographs will be several bronze statues by Frederick Remington, and exhibits of historic and present-day Western gear and graniteware.

In some of O’Brien’s photographs the cowboys are on horseback, riding the hills and valley grasslands of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In other images they are at the hard, gritty work of a roundup: herding, roping, and wrestling cattle to the ground for branding.  The men are working together, often in the company of wives and children. The scenes communicate not only the romance and beauty of the landscape but also the support it provides for a particular community and its centuries-old way of life.

A group of Polaroid transfer prints, which have the warm look of antique hand-colored photographs, depict isolated creatures, plants, and man-made relics that can be found on the same land.  Among the solitary images are, for example, a lizard, a heron, a flower, and an ancient windmill.

Creeping into the images are the signs that all—the open vistas, the creatures, and the cowboys are about to vanish. A sweeping view of hills, valleys and sky reveals a sprawling development of new houses in the distance.  In a field at the top of a hill, a lone cowboy on his horse looks out over—a freeway.  Suburbia approaches.  

“These photographs are an amalgam,” says Curator Carrie Lederer, “of what we know—the visual depiction of current ranching life—joined to romantic notions about the West and what it means to us as a piece of our history.  That image of the Wild West connects to our identity, our sense of the strength of our country and the spirit of forging your own way in life.  The cowboy life is a life I think we’d all like to have known and understood.

“Another important part of these photographs,” Lederer continues, is the way they connect us to the land.  Matt O’Brien is a storyteller.  Each image tells a story.  The images of a beautiful landscape and the people, plants and animals that live on it, combined with the visual evidence of impending encroachment, raise story questions like ‘What will happen to these creatures and plants and people?’ as well as questions like ‘Who does the land belong to?’”

Award-winning photographer Matt O’Brien is not a casual observer of California ranching.   He is a member of the Cronin family, active East Bay ranchers whose first ranch was established in the Dublin hills in 1850.  He has been developing his series of photographs about East Bay ranching for some thirteen years.  Other series by O’Brien have included photographs of family and traditional farming in the wine country of Piemonte, Italy; of a village community in the Sierra Madre of Mexico, and of Oakland public school students.  

With Matt O’Brien’s photographs will be an exhibit of several bronze sculptures by Frederick Remington, on loan from the Lesher Foundation, as well as exhibits of graniteware and of Western gear.  The Western gear, both everyday and elaborately ornamented, includes saddles, bridles, riata, spurs, bits, boots and hats, on loan from Borges Ranch and private collectors.