The Picture Show
5:10 am
Sat July 7, 2012

Portraits: Texas Ranchers Remember An Epic Drought

"Between 1950 and 1960," according to NPR's John Burnett, Texas "lost nearly 100,000 farms and ranches," and rural residents who had made up more than a third of the population dwindled to just a quarter of the population.

They had all moved to towns and cities after an epic, seven-year drought. For a recent story in Texas Monthly, Burnett teamed up with photographer Michael O'Brien to gather an oral history of that drought — asking ranchers what they remember.

In Burnett's radio story, you can listen to the voices of ranchers like Nancy Nunns, who recalls receiving a raincoat in 1951, and outgrowing it without ever once wearing it.

And in O'Brien's photos, the voices spring to life.

"I traveled 900 miles in 4 days and photographed 8 ranchers for the story," writes O'Brien by email. "The farther west we traveled the harsher the land, which was echoed in the faces of the ranchers."

His photographs were mostly made with a 4x5 view camera; some were shot with leftover Polaroid film from Hard Ground, his book about homelessness. Those large negatives have a way of capturing detailed landscapes — like the contours of a face that has weathered the elements.

"The most touching moment came at the end of a long, hot outdoor shoot when Bill Schneemann, 77, a rancher in Big Lake, helped ... carry heavy lighting equipment back to the car," writes O'Brien. "Bill was worn out and used a cane to get around, but he picked up 30-pound sandbags and hauled them quite a distance. A tough rancher with a gentle heart."

Hear the ranchers tell their stories in the radio story.

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