It’s not every day that a fine photographer gets a career retrospective. Now, Janell Kleberg’s most beloved photographs are on display at the Witte Museum in San Antonio so that the world can enjoy Kleberg’s point of view of the Texas ranch scene.
By Lance Avery Morgan
Photography by Janell Kleberg
“The winter fog cloaks the land and lays down a blanket of refreshing dew on everything, even during the dry years,” recalled Janell Kleberg about one of her photographs taken on the King Ranch. “A place where laughter and stories are shared at the end of a day with the satisfaction of a job well done. The morning feels fresh, the grass is grazed down around the roundup ground, and the tiny purple phlox is visible in the sandy soil and the bare spots between clumps of bluestem.”
That sort of bird’s eye view is what Kleberg offers to the viewer of her photographs from her three-decades-long career. She captures the spirit of the land and those who work it, with the same gusto she approaches life. In the exhibit, Live the West: Photographs by Janell Kleberg, currently on display at San Antonio’s Witte Museum, an audio component with a story about each photograph is prominently featured to capture the fleeting moments of strength, beauty, and grace of the annual roundup on King Ranch from the 1970s to the 2000s.
“Helen Kleberg Groves has wanted this exhibit at the Witte Museum for more than a decade,” said Kleberg. “I carried a camera during the years we worked cattle and horses to capture the life and the era she loved. It was a remarkable time and place to remember, and Helenita will be so pleased,” she continued. The Witte Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of Texas from prehistory to the present. The permanent collection features historical artifacts photographs, art, textiles, dinosaur bones, cave drawings, and wildlife dioramas, all from Texas. With this exhibit, the museum visitor is transported through the lens of photographer and conservation ambassador Janell Kleberg to the dusty coastal savanna in the sweltering heat of August during the time when the cattle grazing over thousands of acres are corralled. It’s where horse and rider work together as the calf crop is harvested, the dry cows are culled, and the results of years of selective breeding are judged.
“You will see the smile on Buster’s face and the relaxed seat he has in the saddle, despite the impending duel with a seriously wild Santa Gertrudis cow,” shares Kleberg about one shoot on the range. Kleberg revealed further insight into the story behind the excerpts from Janell Kleberg’s letters to her college friend, Julianna Hawn Holt. “Those cattle were straight out of the brush, some who had avoided being gathered for years, and the dry cows would hook a horse at every pass in the herd. It was simply the best day ever. I am so glad to share it with you, and I think of you each time I find an image such as this. I know that you understand what it means and how this time will never come again. What luck to be there on that day.”
What luck to have Janell Kleberg’s talents to accompany the largess of generous support by Julianna Hawn Holt, the Caesar Kleberg Foundation for Wildlife Conservation, and the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute, in collaboration with the Witte Museum to create this one-of-a-kind exhibit. These powerful partnerships work with the land and the resources that come from it, through science and education with and for future generations. “Janell Kleberg’s photographs illustrate the dignity of work on what we call the wild and vivid land of South Texas, said the Witte’s President and CEO Marise McDermott. “We are so pleased to host this extraordinary exhibition of Janell’s photographic witness to the King Ranch.”
Live the West appears at the Witte Museum through June 6 in the Russell Hill Rogers Texas Art Gallery and is included with museum admission. For more information, visit WitteMuseum.org.