Every time I think my favorite places in the West are played out photographically, devoid of further inspiration for me, I go back and have to eat my words.
Oh, what fun. Lured by the romance of finding hidden treasure, knickknack and antique hunters rummage a county fair building packed with items during the annual Nebraska “Junk Jaunt.” The 200-mile, 500-plus vendor trail includes more than 20 towns, whose residents will see visitors from half the states in the US.
I was lucky enough to travel two days of the Jaunt this year with some of my best students, and in Broken Bow, we found our own treasures…photographs.
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.
In his first Geographic story, Sam Abell made a photograph of his mud-splattered car as a response to the inspiration of Christopher Pratt, one of Canada’s most important modern artists. In the same spirit, while in the rain-soaked, mud-sodden region of eastern Wyoming in 2015, resulting in much the same pattern on my car, I made a photo as a tribute to Sam Abell’s importance to modern photography.
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.
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.”
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.
One may assume, for a photographer, a drought in the publishing of images means one of three things: 1) the photographer has finally reached the limit of his or her tolerance for despair and thus has given up the craft, opting rather to join the merchant marine; 2) the photographer has been in the field shooting; or 3) the photographer has been eaten by a bear.
I’m glad that No. 2 was the case for me.
I’m just back from teaching at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, where I had the pleasure of shooting with Susan Portnoy, the blogger behind The Insatiable Traveler, as well as my dear friend George Bumstead, a rising star in the photographic world. During that workshop, a bit of black and white humor emerged as the class began equating personalities with Ansel Adams’ and Fred Archer’s Zone System.
The class decided I am a Zone 3.
And so I returned to the Colorado backcountry after Santa Fe to work on new visions, fully embracing the darkness.
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.
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.