Barbara Van Cleve’s heritage is rich with family history and firsthand experience. Her family’s ranch, the Lazy K Bar, was founded in 1880 on the east slopes of the Crazy Mountains near Melville, Montana.
As a photographer, she has held a camera since she was 11 years old when her parents gave her a “Brownie” camera and a home developing kit. Her youthful interest in photography soon grew into a lifelong commitment. Ranch work also began early for Barbara. Barely six, she could be found sitting astride a horse helping gather cattle. Ever since she has been documenting the “true grit” and romantic beauty of her experiences on the ranch and on other ranches in the West.
Along the way, she earned an MA in English Literature at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois; she has been a Dean of Women at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois; and she taught English Literature, and later photography, for over 25 winters at DePaul University, Loyola University and Mundelein College, all in the Chicago area. At the same time photography continued to be a passionate avocation. In her free time, she worked for Rand McNally as a textbook photographer and also established her own stock photography agency. The long summers were spent on the family ranch in Montana.
She moved to Santa Fe in late 1980 to concentrate on photography full time and had her first major exhibition in the fall of 1985. Since that time she has had over 59 one-person shows and has been in nearly 89 group shows. Her work is collected in public and private collections in the United States as well as internationally.
Barbara was honored to receive the Santa Fe Rotary Club’s Artist of the Year award in 2000. In 2001, the Coors Western Art Exhibit awarded her the Mary Belle Grant Award, which is given to an individual “… who embodies the spirit of the western way of life and symbolizes the passion of the West through Art.” In 2005 she was the first woman and the first photographer to be honored as the Featured Artist of the Coors Western Art Exhibit and Sale.
Her photography has been published in Roughstock Sonnets, (with poetry by Paul Zarzyski and Africa), Way Out West, and Cowboys: A Horseback Heritage as well as other books. KOAT-TV, an ABC affiliate in Albuquerque, New Mexico produced and aired a thirty-minute video documentary, Barbara Van Cleve: Capturing Grace, in 1993. In the Fall of 1995 her book, Hard Twist: Western Ranch Women was published by the Museum of New Mexico Press, and she was inducted into the Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. All This Way for the Short Ride (with poet Paul Zarzyski) was published by the Museum of New Mexico Press in 1997. Her most recent book is Holding the Reins: A Ride Through Cowgirl Life written by Marc Talbert and illustrated with her photographs about ranch girls. Harper Collins published it in February 2003.
In 2004 Barbara moved back home to Big Timber, Montana where she now has her studio and is close by the family ranch. In addition to continuing to photograph the rural American West, since 1979 she has been working on an extensive project in the backcountry of Baja California. She has also photographed in Morocco and in Africa (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana).