The men who work on the Pitchfork, 6666 and JA ranches in the Texas Panhandle call theirs "the most free kind of life you can have." It's a life that's changed little since the 1860s, when thousands of young Texans rode home from the Civil War and began driving the wild longhorn cattle out of the brush and up the dusty trails to Abilene and Dodge City.
Over the years since, the cowboy has become the quintessential American hero. He has been glorified in song and story, on film and on television as the New World's knight on horseback, free as the wind, reliable as the sun, master of the vast and beautiful universe called The West.
Those who know the cowboy best know that this life is one of hard manual labor, brutal weather and a loneliness so strong that most of us would never bear it. But those realities only strengthen the power of his grasp on our imagination. Indeed, he stands tall in our minds and in our national mythology precisely because of the hardships he faces and the easy grace and humor with which he conquers them.
No photographer in our time has captured the harshness and beauty of the cowboy life as truthfully as Skeeter Hagler. The images included here won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. Their simple truth has needed no translation for viewers in museums, galleries and exhibits throughout the world. In touching these minds and hearts, they have become classics of the photographic art.