Sheepherders: Men Alone-The Photography of Michael Mathers

Sheepherders Tent by Michael Mathers  July 1 - December 15, 2006
Western Folklife Center
G Three Bar Theater
501 Railroad Street
Elko Nevada


In photographing sheepherders, Michael Mathers wasn't attempting to document any particular group, such as the Basques. Instead, he was drawn to individuals and how they dealt with the intensity of their lives.

Cooking at the sheep campIn 2005, Michael Mathers generously donated his hobo and sheepherder photographs to the Western Folklife Center, and we are pleased to be able to share some of them in this exhibit with audio vignettes produced by the Western Folklife Center.

Michael Mathers was born in Washington, D. C. and grew up on Long Island in New York in the 1950s and 1960s. He attended high school in Concord, Massachusetts and from there went on to Harvard University - hoping (he says) to meet the charismatic king of psychedelia, Timothy Leary.

Mathers' own rebellious nature didn't exactly find a niche in the academic world. Instead, his path at Harvard zig-zagged until his senior year when he happened to enroll in a photography class. From that point on, he was hooked on photography and began taking pictures nearly non-stop.

Having read Jack Kerouac's tales of the open road in high school, Mathers was anxious to find his own America. He began hopping freights, drifting by rail from the east coast out to the heartlands of the American West, all the while photographing hoboes who were often his traveling and camp companions. Mathers' first book of photographs, Riding the Rails, was published by a small outfit, Gambit, in Boston in 1973. It was soon picked up by the larger firm of Houghton Mifflin and published again in 1974.

Sheepherders: Men Alone book coverIn 1975, Houghton Mifflin published a second collection of Mathers' photos entitled Sheepherders: Men Alone. The book's powerful pictures evoke an isolated lifestyle and take viewers into close quarters with the men who watched over sheep bands in remote sections of Oregon and Wyoming. According to Mathers, the book was marketed primarily to sheep ranchers in the West, a strategy that resulted only in low sales for the publisher. Today, he quips - "If you're a sheep rancher, the last thing you want to read about is goddamn sheepherders!" Mathers did get to know one Basque sheepherder though - Fred Murdi, about whom he wrote quite a bit in his introduction to Sheepherders: Men Alone.

"Fred was one of the most interesting sheepherders I met but any man who has herded sheep for forty years develops a unique perspective on his own life and what he finds around him. I'm always moved by the generosity of the older herders, their willingness to share their stories, supplies and shelter. Those of us who come from the supposed sophistication of the city might be taken aback by the oddity of what is shared and by these people, but sheepherding is an ancient and unique occupation, it's solitude enhancing the characters of its men."

Now living in Astoria, Oregon, Michael Mathers makes his living as a commercial photographer capturing mostly architectural subjects. He is a natural "people-person" with a gift for conversation and he enjoys taking portraits of people from all walks of life.

Sheepherders: Men Alone - The Photography of Michael Mathers was funded by the Nevada Arts Council.