Back to the Rodeo

87th Fiesta de los Vaqueros

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Today’s blizzard-like conditions don’t augur well for my visit to Tucson for the 88th Annual Fiesta de los Vaqueros. Bisbee was pounded with heavy wind and snow, and I expect all that’s melted on the roadways will be ice by morning. I know Tucson got hit, too and don’t expect a pleasant drive. But what the hell, right? There’s a job to do, and if there’s one thing I can take comfort in, there’ll be plenty of cheap beer and whiskey to take the sting out.

I can picture the grounds, wet with melted snow, settling into a muddy soup. I missed last weekend’s performance – something I lament, but can’t control – but after all the time I’ve spent out there, I can conjure a pretty clear picture: metal railings slathered in mud, pens filled with anxious steers, the aroma of leather and manure. There’s a certain kind of unpredictability before the rodeo; one can sense the adrenaline, anticipate the thud of hooves, the grunting of worked-up rough-stock. It’s a nervous feeling one gets, but it keeps you sharp. Things unfold quickly in the arena and I don’t want to miss a good shot.

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I’ve been photographing the rodeo for years and I’m still pretty dumb-founded at my enjoyment of the sport, considering my earlier years, and the misfit toys that occupy my inner sanctum. I could intellectualize it, I suppose, and there’s definitely a rich history to the sport, but that isn’t really it. At the end of the day, folks could give me a once-over and assume – with some accuracy – that they’re looking at a blue-state sort of guy. So then, what is it about the red-state atmosphere in the rodeo arena that I find so appealing? It isn’t the pop-country rattling the aluminum grandstand, and it isn’t the whiskey; it isn’t about pretending to be anything I’m not, either, donning my hat and walking clandestinely among real cowboys. All I can figure is that my roots are in the Midwest. I took field trips to the Kansas City Royal in elementary school, just like the kids from the Tucson Unified School District spill into the stands up in Tucson. Notions of the Wild West permeate our culture, and I get to participate in this tradition by reporting on it and preserving it.

Everything’s pretty fast-paced out there, and I really dig the challenge.

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There’s a lot of heartland pandering, but that’s nothing new. The idyllic “cowboy” has been used to sell trucks, whiskey, music records, and jeans for as long as I can remember. Salt-of-the-earth imagery is an effective tool to tap into our desire for so-called ‘simpler times.’ The notion of getting one’s hands dirty, being connected to the earth, and having a Calvanistic appreciation for hard work all play a role. Plenty of literature has been devoted to the topic, but this isn’t a screed I’m particularly interested in right now. Rather, I’m interested in the opposite end of the spectrum.

The competitors at these Pro Rodeo events are, in a manner of speaking, the genuine article. These cowboys put their bodies through hell, and have real, quantifiable skill. I’ve seen enough broken-toothed grins and scarred bodies to respect the risk these guys take, and I’m interested in that intense combination of bravery and madness that motivates a 160 pound man to mount an angry beast ten times his weight.

The cold weather’s gonna suck, there’s no doubt about it. But in my experience, the press box and photo pit empty out when the weather doesn’t cooperate. A little bit of discomfort is worth getting the shot that nobody else is around to capture. Wish me luck.

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Consumerism, Commoditization, and Courtship

The Weed

 

“Men always want to be a woman’s first love – women like to be a man’s last romance.”
~Oscar Wilde

Today’s a great opportunity to pretend I care about this holiday, but I can’t. It’s history has been obscured by shiny-bright advertisements, hideous department-store jingles, and a woeful pressure to shuck out hard-earned dollars for trinkets that’ll be discarded and flowers guaranteed to die. Beyond its history being bastardized in the name of making a buck, much of it is sketchy at best. At least, like so many great Christian tales, it’s history is unconfirmed, and it’s absolutely drenched in blood.

But I won’t be going into that.

Color me a cynic, but I don’t require a specific mark on the calendar to express the love and adoration I possess – for anybody. I can’t actually recall a time when this holiday inspired a legitimate exploration of love, anyway. I haven’t met a soul who can. It’s a pretty tricky subject to begin with, better left to poets, philosophers, and artists than flowers.com, Russel Stover, and Hallmark.

Love is fierce, beautiful, and agonizing, and it’s different for everybody. In my life, my dreams have been haunted by crudely lit bodies on the edge of the darkness, and I can recall those adolescent moments where romantic love and sexual desire fused together. Just like everybody else, I’ve never been able to make sense of ’em, and I suppose that’s what’s so romantic about…romance.

At the end of the day, we’re socialized in one direction, and our instincts drag us in another. There’s a tension that surrounds our sexuality in a repressed society, and that’s why it occupies every corner of our popular culture. It’s in our sit-coms, our pop songs, our art, and our literature. We’re obsessed with it, likely because it’s a puzzle that can’t be solved.

Especially not by a cheap box of chocolates or a diamond ring in a champagne glass.

The Draw

Whitewater Sunset

I’ve lived in the Southwest for over ten years, spending most of that time in urban areas. My goals were more aligned with pounding-out an education, whatever that means, and trying to scrape together some semblance of a living. Only after moving to Bisbee did I begin to wrap my mind around how unusual the territory is. Copper extraction in this little mining town has ceased. The hills are dotted with old miner shacks – some renovated and some decrepit – perched over tombstone canyon. Without the mining & precious metals industry – and the stock exchange that once directed commerce in this region – the town’s known more today for its sordid history of miners, gamblers, prostitutes and, of course, absurd tales of their lingering spirits. I prefer Bisbee’s ‘other’ attraction: artists, eccentrics, and junk-peddlers. At the end of the day, this is a place to drink, to sift through antique curios, and maybe grab a bite to eat at any of the decent restaurants we’ve got.

What I never would have known about, not living here, are the peculiar micro-climates. This is Arizona, we’re saddled-up along the Mexico border. This is the damned desert. But then, the San Pedro river rises and falls with the season. Fields of ocotillo and chaparral stretch out through the valley that demarcates the border – just as clearly as that hideous, rust-laden fence. Another location, a bit out of the way, is Whitewater Draw. If you can believe it, the desert of Southern Arizona boasts a wetlands, a major roost site for the Sandhill Crane.

Bird freaks, photographers, and outdoors-enthusiasts swarm this wildlife preserve during the winter season to watch the cranes descend into the wetlands; the birds spend their evening in the shallow waters evading natural predators, and then fly out in the morning to feed and socialize. It’s a sight to see, if you’re into that kind of thing. As the sun sets, flights scatter over the horizon. You can usually hear the beasts before you would ever see ’em. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of luck with my camera when I went out there a few weeks back, but you work with the hand you’re dealt. The area is tranquil and worthy of anybody’s camera.

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As a result of changing habitat and hunting, it’s estimated that the Sandhill Crane population hovered, maybe, around one-thousand in the 1940’s. With conservation efforts – and an unexplained genius on behalf of the birds to select insanely secure breeding habitats – the population has increased. At this point, it would appear that the greatest threat to the crane is inter-species competition with snow geese over food resources.

The cranes are social, generally encountered in family groups. During the migration & winter seasons, non-filial cranes band together, forming “survival groups” that forage and roost together. These are the kinds of groups that one can expect to encounter at Whitewater Draw during the winter here in Southern Arizona. This year’s migratory group is estimated over twenty-thousand.

Changing Times

View of Bisbee

 

It’s easy to feel like one’s thoughts are unoriginal, that publishing one’s words is self-indulgent, that blogs like this are unnecessary.

I struggle with these thoughts whenever I sit down and commit thought to paper, clack on the keyboard, publish them on the inter-webs. There’s an odd compulsion, however, to share these thoughts & images, too; after all, as an image-maker and artist, this is my job. I’ve been astonished, these past few weeks, how a common thread clearly emerged; I and many of my cohort have, independent of one another, shared a number of experiences: upheaval in personal relationships, changes in profession, sleeplessness, and stress have all been common themes as we’ve moved beyond the holiday season.

It’s as though the ground has been shifting right beneath our feet.

My reluctance to sit down and write – anything – is obvious. It’s been nearly a year since I’ve sat down and contributed to this web-log. In the days to come, I’m hoping to get caught up on a lot of work. I have a lot of images sitting on various hard-drives, hiding in a stack of memory cards, and dag-nabbit it’s time I sit down and sift through ’em. I’m living alone now; the burden of keeping an ailing relationship alive has been lifted. It’s time to get back to work, so keep your eyes peeled for more photographs, illustrations, and stories.

Cheers!