UC Berkeley press release


Ranches?...in the Bay Area? UC Berkeley exhibit documents an historic, vanishing way of life

by Gretchen Kell

Berkeley -- Ranching, cattle and cowboys usually don't come to mind when most people think of the Bay Area. But photographer Matt O'Brien hopes to change all that.

For the past six years, the University of California at Berkeley graduate has been taking thousands of pictures of cattle ranching in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. He also has conducted in-depth interviews with ranchers, whose numbers have been dwindling steadily -- both in California and across the country -- due to urban sprawl.

O'Brien's "Back to the Ranch" project so impressed UC Berkeley's Hearst Museum of Anthropology that the staff decided to exhibit, starting June 11, some 30 of his black and white photographs, along with exerpts from his interviews.

"Matt isn't an anthropologist, but he could be," said Ira Jacknis, the museum's associate research anthropologist. "He's recorded the yearly cycle of the ranchers, everything they do -- branding livestock, playing marbles, moving cattle around. That's good anthropology. If you look at the pictures and the documentation, you learn something."

O'Brien, 31, has a personal interest in cattle ranching, which began in California some 200 years ago, and its demise. His relatives have had a ranch outside of Dublin, Calif., for five generations.

"As an adult, I realized that I'd taken all this stuff for granted, that some of the ranches I'd played on had disappeared," he said. "Developers brought in heavy machinery and started destroying the hills, filling up the canyons and bringing in tract homes, shopping centers and office parks.

"The agricultural community and its way of life have been squeezed out, and the land and the life it supports have been destroyed. And there is a lot of wildlife on ranches other than cows."

As a student at UC Berkeley, O'Brien studied zoology and considered photography a hobby. But after receiving an award from the campus to do an independent study project on the southern river otter in Costa Rica, his photographic work on the science expedition inspired him to spend more time behind the lens. After graduating in 1988, he chronicled a year in the life of a local Catholic school, traditional farming and wine making in Piemonte, Italy, and the people, daily life and religious observances of a village in the Sierra Madre in Sinaloa, Mexico.

Since 1991, he has been photographing local ranches -- both the rangeland and the culture.

"Because of my family link," said O'Brien, "I'd be at the ranchers' events -- round-ups, calvings, brandings, the selling of steers in the summer. I got to know people, and they'd invite me to attend."

Among the images he recorded are a Cull Canyon cowboy on horseback rounding up cattle, a trusty cow dog racing after calves, cows and calves on their way to a spring branding, a cowboy watering his horse at a creek in the Livermore Mountains and a close-up of a cowboy's boots and monogrammed spurs.

O'Brien also taped interviews with ranchers and has transcribed the conversations into hundreds of pages of text.

Many of the scenes O'Brien captured a few years ago can never be documented again. An area of Dublin Canyon where he photographed a spring roundup is now a subdivision. A few of the elderly ranchers he shot portraits of have passed away. Three ranches he once knew have been paved over.

In one foretelling photo, a lone rancher with a wide-brimmed hat rides his horse through tall grass atop a hill -- with urban Walnut Creek and the vast Bay Area sprawling beneath him in the background.

Jacknis said the museum was "bowled over by the sheer visual quality of the photographs. But that wasn't enough for us. Matt also had a concept and good documentation. He is working towards a book and has really photographed widely, not just spatially. And he's done all these interviews with ranchers."

Adding to the museum's interest was the timeliness of the subject. "It's quite sad that ranching, brought here by the Spanish about 200 years ago, is on its way out," said Jacknis.

O'Brien cautioned that not every rancher gets out of the business for the same reason or has the same view of developers. But he said he "hopes people realize this heritage is something valuable and stand up to the destruction of the land."

Some of O'Brien's more than 100 "Back to the Ranch" photographs have been exhibited elsewhere, including the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco and the Olive Hyde Gallery in Fremont. Until now, they have been displayed with only minimal text.

Six of his photographs are in the Library of Congress collections. Ranching was well represented at the library, but until they received O'Brien's work, they had lacked depictions of California ranching.

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