The End of the Trail

By Fernando Souto Back to


My parents emigrated from Uruguay to Australia when I was 18 months old. With my extended family still in Uruguay, I never had the opportunity to really know my relatives−particularly my grandmother, who always seemed to be really old to me. The brief, scrambled international phone calls throughout my childhood did little for me to understand who I was and where I had come from.

In 2002, I went to Uruguay for my grandmother’s hundredth birthday. She had grown up in a rural community at the turn of the twentieth century, and I would always ask her about her childhood whenever possible. She described the first time she saw a car with her sister and the difficulties of living without running water or electricity. She showed me my great- grandfather’s parole photograph. He had killed a man for stealing his horse. Her stories of her childhood played out in my head like a cinematic black and white movie and became the catalyst for my decision to shoot in black and white film. I chose Kodak Tri-X 400 in 35mm format for its extreme latitude and paired it with Microdol developer to tighten up the grain on large prints. There are many other practical reasons why I chose to see this project in black and white, but ultimately both the execution and the choice of film came from a desire to simplify my approach to photography.

After my grandmother’s birthday, I headed north near the Brazilian border. Initially, I approached people on the side of the road, at gas stations and in bars. Eventually I was introduced to a ranch owner who invited me out to his cattle station. The isolated ranch sat about 40 miles from the main road. There were four adults and one child living on the ranch with no neighbors in sight. The solitude was intense for an urban dweller, and I could see how it had defined their character. I followed them around, randomly photographing their day-to-day lives, while trying to stay out of the way. They were generous people with little to spare who appreciated my company. It wasn’t long before I saw a mirror of my own upbringing and of the values that my parents had instilled in me. It was a threshold moment in my life, and this trip would become a model for the entire series.

Norma was born in this house and lives here with her husband Toto and their two daughters, who have recently moved to town to attend high school. Nothing on the property has changed since Norma’s ancestors built the house stone by stone from the the river Queguay in the early 1800s. In the future they hope to purchase a generator to power a cell phone charger. (Barbosa Station, Tacuarembo, Uruguay, 2002.)
Throughout the spring and summer, approximately 3,200 calves will be branded, tagged, vaccinated and castrated. The young calves represent the ranch’s profit for the year, which are carefully counted and marked. (Arapahoe Reservation, Wyoming, USA, 2005.)

Since college I have always performed a complete test of my equipment before each trip. I would test anything I wasn’t completely confident about, so my technical decisions would be instantaneous in the field. This idea would also work with digital equipment, but only quicker. For example, I would shoot a series of photographs with varying amounts of diffusion over the fill-flash to obtain the perfect balance of ambient light and flash. This test would be done in a similar environment to the one I’d encounter on the trip, like a dimly lit room or a campfire. In the image from Uruguay of Norma and her husband, you can see the results of planning ahead. I was standing in the kitchen when I took this photograph. I quietly rested my Contax T2 on the back of a chair and set the camera without hesitation. I only shot one frame before the moment was over. You can see that the flash adds just enough light to bring up the shadows without overpowering the direction of light that comes from the lantern.

During the fall of 2002, I looked over my contact sheets and thought about the possibility of expanding upon my images from Uruguay. That Christmas a friend gave me a book called Trail Dust and Saddle Leather by Joseph Mora (1946). Joseph Mora was born in Uruguay and had immigrated to the US in 1880. He was known mostly as an illustrator and lived with the Hopi Indians depicting what he had observed. I was immediately drawn in by the details in his illustrations and instantly saw a path to a long-term photography project that I called “The End of the Trail.” This series will eventually encompass seven countries where ranching has had a significant presence in the culture and traditional working techniques still exist.

In 2005, I traveled to the Arapahoe Reservation in Wyoming to work on this series.

In Uruguay, I had cropped everything horizontally to illustrate the vast, flat landscape, but on this trip to Wyoming it was intentional. I felt that pairing the black and white film with a uniform horizontal crop would assist me in creating a bold, visual link. Additionally, I hadn’t thought about the impact my small 35mm camera would have on the over- all direction of the project. Its size afforded me mobility and the opportunity to spontaneously cap- ture ranchers’ lives, which I saw as a departure from the rigid, conventional cowboy portraits of the past.

Unfortunately, throughout this trip I constantly found that my best opportunities to shoot were met with awful lighting conditions, and I continually looked for any opportunity to mask the glare of the midday sun. In the image of calves being branded, shot with a 24mm lens, I had positioned myself over the shoulder of the foreground subject to maximize the depth of the image. When the stream of smoke blew over the cowboy from the branding iron, it created a convenient haze to defuse the bright overhead sun.

On the average, I could expect a seven-stop range from the mid-tone to the shadow. Realizing that my situation was not going to improve, I began to embrace the blaring sunlight and worked with it. In the image of Jesse, Jay and Russell, I positioned myself in the shadow and shot into the enveloping light. The bright sunlight, coupled with their ex- pression, helped define the image. Although the film had captured more detail than I needed, it was still a challenge to balance the highlight intensity of the background with the foreground subjects. I struggled to achieve even a satisfactory print in a rental darkroom. By 2006 the cost of out- sourcing film to the lab had become unaffordable for me, so it was an easy step to put together a darkroom in my apartment. Aside from the cost savings, the darkroom afforded me the time to perfect my prints−which in turn helped me piece together the overall direction of the project.

From left to right-Jessie 19, Jay 42 and Russell 76, relax after helping a neighbor brand her calves. (Arapahoe Reservation, Wyoming, USA, 2005.)
Chris, 37, works with his team of stockmen to walk 22,000 head of cattle through the thick dust and soaring temperatures across the Barkly Tablelands. The stockmen are always watchful to prevent any of the cattle from breaking away from the main herd, which would start a massive stampede. (Brunchilly Station, Northern Territory, Australia, 2007.)

The next natural step for me was to shoot in Australia, where the stockman is as much a part of folklore as the cowboy is in the United States. In 2007 I headed to central Australia and to the vast expanses of the Barkly Tablelands to join a cattle drive with 22,000 head. From a photographic standpoint, the fenceless terrain makes it very difficult to approach the cattle for fear of starting a massive stampede. This would be an ideal circum- stance to use a telephoto lens, but I’ve always felt that these lenses create a disconnection with the environment. I consistently try to encompass as many details as possible in the foreground and background, which helps build the story and differentiate each culture.

In this image of the cattle drive, which was taken with a 50mm lens, you can see how the angle of coverage gives you a tangible depth that is magnified by the direction of the light. When I took the photograph, I had positioned myself alongside the herd, which allowed me to get a little closer than usual. As the rogue cow attempted to break away from the herd, the stockman rode into my frame to block its path. Click. After three days of shooting under the blazing Australian sun, my greatest ally was patience.

This project was sparked by the simplest approach −which was to look inside myself. I merged that vision with conventional working methods that were accessible to me and reflected my straight- forward approach. As I have continued to work on this long-term series, it has become important to visualize an attainable conclusion. Having clear goals has helped me define a path for this story and drives me to push forward to the end.

Product Resources: Cameras: Canon EOS 3, Leica M6 TTL; Lenses: 90mm f/2.8 Leitz Elmarit-R, 50mm Zeiss Planar f/1.4, 28mm f/2.8 Zeiss Biogon, Leica 50mm Summicon f/2.0 Contax T2; Meter: Sekonic L-508; Accesories: Heliopan and Leica filters, Lowepro backpack and MC photo pouches; Darkroom: Durst Laborator with Schneider 50mm lens.

About the Author

Fernando Souto
Fernando Souto was born in Montevideo, Uruguay in 1972 and immigrated to Sydney, Australia with his family in 1974. He majored in photography at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, with the intent of working as a portrait photographer. His continuing “End of the Trail” project began in 2002. He was selected to attend the Santa Fe Review in 2008 and was named an emerging artist by the Photo District News in 2009. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.