Musée Limited Editions: Norm Clasen
Ashley Yu: What is it about cowboy culture and the Great American West that fascinates you so much?
Norm Clasen: I grew up with it. It was part of my younger life and that has made it very easy for me to photograph it now.
Ashley: Where did you grow up?
Norm: In California. The most exposure I had to that cowboy lifestyle was in Big Bear Lake, where I was there all through high school. In the summertime, I would work on a ranch nearby and ride the fence, which meant that, if you’re a little rookie, you get on your horse every day, ride around and check the fence to make sure it’s not broken. It’s a job that none of the other cowboys wanted to do. I truly appreciated the effort that the cowboy puts in to live in the American West. The love of that has stayed with me forever.
Ashley: Could you talk about the print that is currently on sale?
Norm: That photograph was taken in Wyoming and it was a test shot for Marlboro. I love that it’s symbolic of the West, yet it’s a simple photograph, that incorporated all the things that I love, and it’s timeless. The picture could have been taken 60 years ago or 6 minutes ago.
Ashley: You’re most well-known for your Marlboro campaign. How has your experience in advertising influenced your personal work?
Norm: It’s an extraordinary privilege to have spent 13 years for what could be the most iconic campaign in advertising history. I say that without any reservations. I look at the creative genius of the Leo Burnett agency as something that might never be duplicated. The cowboy himself is also an icon that everybody can relate to. If you’re dressed in a 3-piece suit, you’d say, “oh boy, all I ever wanted to be was a free cowboy.” And if you’re a woman, you’d say, “wouldn’t that be a romantic life to have with a cowboy?”
Ashley: Ernest Hemingway was obsessed with bulls and bullfighting because he thought there was some sort of philosophical link with confronting death. Would you say your interests in horses reflects something similar?
Norm: Look, my interest in horses started when I was young and still have it to this day. I look at the cowboy lifestyle and it’s dangerous—no question about it—running around animals that could hurt you or fall on you. But it was a lifestyle that people loved. It’s usually ingrained in anybody that continues to do it. That’s just the way it is.
Ashley: How would you describe your signature style?
Norm: I tell people, “I’m not the world’s greatest technician but I pride myself on being a great storyteller.” I’m not all hung up on photoshopped images and what not. When I capture a photo, I want it to come back without any manipulation at all, other than maybe cropping.
Ashley: What kind of story do you want specifically?
Norm: As honest and real as can be. You take one look at the photograph I gave you guys—it’s simple, nothing complicated but you immediately go: “God, I wish I was on that horse.” In my style of photography, I’ve always tried to present it in a very honest perspective.
Ashley: You are also known for your use of abstract landscapes. What is it specifically about certain landscapes that captures your eye?
Norm: Textures and layers have always captivated me. There are landscape photographers that capture beautiful images but wait for days for the sun to land right. I have great appreciation for that but I’m too impatient. I want to go out and if I see it and if it’s beautiful, then I try to capture it. If it doesn’t happen to be that perfect sunny day, well, I did the best I can.
Ashley: What was the most beautiful landscape that you ever saw?
Norm: The landscapes, here in the West, make my heart stop sometimes when I see the beauty of the mountains, the geography, and the light. We have a very special place out here. The best landscapes I’ve ever seen are almost like a fleeting image. It’s something that just happens and you’re not going to see it again. It’s not something you can go back to tomorrow and photograph.
Ashley: What’s your favorite Western movie, if you have one?
Norm: When I was young, I used to read all the Zane Grey novels, you might not even know him, but he wrote all these fabulous Western stories. I always used to compare movies with the details that are in Zane Grey’s books. Dances with Wolves has always struck me as being a beautiful film, that wasn’t just about cowboys. It was also about the West and the Indian Movement.
Ashley: Is there anything else you want to share with us?
Norm: I think that the West is changing. Every day, we lose another ranch here and another ranch there. That lifestyle is slowly but surely evolving. What I’m really happy about is that I got to document the lifestyle of the rancher and the cowboy. I think Marlboro did that more than anyone has ever done and I was just privileged to be part of it.
Norm Clasen was also featured in our issue MOTION.
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