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Steamboat Magazine

Cowboy Up

04/25/2024 07:00AM ● By Suzi Mitchell
(Photo: A storm brewing in Polsom, Montana made for an incredible backdrop during a workshop Norm Clasen led in 2014. Ten minutes after the image “Before the Storm” was taken, the sky opened and it poured with rain. Courtesy of Norm Clasen Photography.)

Steamboat Springs, CO - The image of a rope wielding cowboy rounding up a horse, dust flying and his yellow slicker flapping behind him is one of hundreds taken by internationally renowned photographer Norm Clasen. The Colorado resident was the lead man behind the camera for the Marlboro advertising campaign from the late 1970s through the 80s – a marker in his 55-year career.  Until recently, his gallery representation has been limited to Los Angeles, California, and notable venues across the globe.

 (Cowboys drive their horses through a shallow river in Wisdom, Montana, during a photo shoot led by Norm for the Marlboro campaign. Norm is passionate about the landscapes, people and horses of the Great American West and this old-time wood barn captures what he says is a classic image of the West. Courtesy of Norm Clasen Photography.)

Ten of Clasen’s originals were installed in January 2024 at the Jace Romick Gallery in downtown Steamboat Springs as part of a five-print count per image, limited collection. A serendipitous meeting with Romick, led to a discussion about the pair’s shared passions and life trajectories, resulting in Clasen choosing the Yampa Valley with its strong ranching roots as a fitting location to share his work. “It is an incredible honor to have Norm at the gallery,” Romick says.

 (At the end of a photo shoot for Marlboro in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a dreamy sunset framed the cowboy and his horse in this iconic photograph titled “Reflections.” Courtesy of Norm Clasen Photography.)

Clasen’s deep-seated respect for the American West is evident in his work - he counts rain, dust, and storm clouds as preferred conditions for his signature atmospheric imagery. Horses are a favorite subject in capturing the essence of the West. “Experiencing the energy, power, grace and sound of a herd of horses running is awe inspiring,” he says.

 (The epitome of the Marlboro Man, this classic image symbolized the last bastion of the American man wanting to run free on the land with his horses. Courtesy of Norm Clasen Photography.)

A former ski racer who grew up riding horses and roping in California, Clasen moved to Aspen in the 60s. He opened a graphics and advertising business and stumbled into photography when he struggled to source good imagery for his fast-growing client base. 

 (Light came into play during a shoot for Marlboro in Ronan, Montana, with sunlight illuminating the cowboy and his horses in the foreground and a dramatic darker backdrop. Courtesy of Norm Clasen Photography.)


Clasen says he was lucky to land the job in the 1970s when he answered a scouting call for Leo Burnett, an advertising agency in Chicago who managed the Marlboro account since the campaign began in 1954. “My old standing joke is that my arm went up so fast I dislocated my shoulder. I said yes of course, and my first test shoot was an absolute disaster,” he says.
He would go on to break boundaries, bringing backlight into the images, which he said enhanced the beauty of the big sky country settings. The use of only real cowboys ensured the story from each shoot was genuine. “The life of a cowboy is not necessarily as glamorous as we all think it is from the movies and from various photographs.” He never asked the subjects to perform a task he couldn’t do himself, which built confidence and resulted in an authentic outcome.
Hundreds of these images led Philip Morris & Co Ltd. to have the most successful advertising campaign of all time. Clasen’s work from his Marlboro days and beyond has graced billboards and countless publications across the globe. Today that iconic story is being shared in Steamboat Springs, a place where many true cowboys call home.