Rodeo

Breakaway Roper, Arthur Rodeo

Breakaway Roper

Breakaway Roper

I learned long ago the Great Plains is populated by closet feminists, for here women are just as capable (and welcome) riders and ropers as men. Just watch a few breakaway calf roping performances, and you’ll understand that in the wide spaces before the Rocky Mountains, women need not pull any punches. Tough as nails and happy to prove it.

Bravo.

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Bouncy House, Elwood

Bouncy House, Elwood

Bouncy House, Elwood

Ah, the unexpected. Photographically, it’s de rigueur at the small rodeos of the West, whether it be those in the crowd, the cowboys, the cowgirls or the children. Honestly, while this project is about much more for me than novelty, it’s what often keeps me coming back to each and every backwater event I can find. This image is case-in-point.

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Cowboy and Ferris Wheel, Elwood

Cowboy and Ferris Wheel, Elwood

Cowboy and Ferris Wheel, Elwood

I recently wrapped up another stint of teaching at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, somewhere I feel most honored to be an instructor. But that’s not the point of this post. Color is.

Someone I met this year in Santa Fe noted that while I’m known as a black-and-white artist, I haven’t worked solely in monochrome, and what’s more, some of my best—best!—images are in color. Ironic, no? Yet, I often feel like Eeyore when I make such images.

“I might have known,” said Eeyore. “After all, one can’t complain.”

So when I made the above image and chose to leave it in color (which may mean it never goes in my forthcoming book about rural rodeos), upon seeing it, another person made a related comment regarding palette. “Oooh, color! That’s not like you.”

Oh, bother.

Young Cowboys, Elwood

Young Cowboys, Elwood

Young Cowboys, Elwood

I really do love small rodeos. I have a lot of reasons: the metaphors of the West, the poetry of youth and bravado, the music of community and tradition. But there are times I’m presented with an image that leaves me breathless, for it combines many of those beloved reasons into a single image.

These young cowboys had been sauntering around the Elwood rodeo all night, and as the saddle bronc and bareback event drew to a close, the future rodeo stars congregated on the fence like so many grown cowboys I’ve seen before, but with the starry eyes of admiration seeping from every corner of the image. Hopeful rodeo heroes, I thought.

Future stalwarts of the West, these young men. Future stalwarts.

Sammy Geisler, Bronc Rider

Sammy Geisler, Bronc Rider

Sammy Geisler, Bronc Rider

One of the best parts of my photographic life is the people I meet on the road at rodeos, county fairs, brandings, and elsewhere. Every story is interesting, for each life is different. But occasionally, one story stands out, a story that is vastly different than others. Sammy Geisler is just such a story, for in all my years shooting rodeos, I’ve never met anyone like her.

She’s a bronc rider. The only woman I’ve ever met who was.

In such a legacy sport nearly universally dominated by men, being a woman comes with an uphill battle for respect and recognition that’s tougher than the men have had to face. That means she’s tougher than nails, to say the least.

And I simply had to make a portrait of that brand of strength.

Trying on Hats, Eddyville Rodeo

Girls Trying on Hats, Eddyville

Girls Trying on Hats, Eddyville

I’ve been working on my Rural Rodeos project now—off and on, but mostly on—for 3 years. There are numerous reasons the project and book are important to me, but the largest is that it shows the intersections of tradition, modernity, and coming of age for everyone involved. These girls, trying on hats and making selfies at the Eddyville rodeo, struck me as symbolic of all three of the central themes of my work.

Rodeo Roper Family, Arthur

Rodeo Roper, Arthur

Rodeo Roper, Arthur

A storm rolling in on the horizon, a rodeo roper, his wife, his dog and his portable steer offered a compelling chance for an image with insights into the summer rodeo life in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Wild Horse Race, Bartlett

Wild Horse Racing, Bartlett

Wild Horse Racing, Bartlett

I love shooting rodeos–after all, they’re the subject of my next book. And at rodeos, wild horse races are by far one of the most energizing, terrifying events for a photographer. Horses and people bucking and running and shouting and riding all mean lots of danger, and that’s a certainty if one isn’t careful.

But the photos are worth it.

Rodeo Cowboys, Arthur

Rodeo Cowboys, Arthur

Rodeo Cowboys, Arthur

Rodeo stops for nothing. Nothing.

A massive storm rolled through the skies over Arthur, Nebraska, for the Saturday performance at the rodeo, complete with massive wind, torrential rains, and…lightning. Big bolts of lightning. But no one moved, especially the cowboys.

And so the festivities continued, and so did I, photographing–and I was rewarded with the storm and sunset and visual drama and…this image.

Bronc Rider, Greeley Rodeo

Bronc Rider, Greeley Rodeo

Bronc Rider, Greeley Rodeo

Many thanks to the Greeley Rodeo Committee for giving me carte blanche access to their rodeo this year–the shots were worth it and people were fantastic!