February 28, 2017 – Desert Rot

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One of the things that photography, and the volumes of underlying science, have taught me is that there is an aesthetic beauty implicit in the process of decay. When the veneer is stripped away, and as common objects are vulnerable, new textures surface. When we peel back the skin, we see new things – and we usually spend most of our waking lives trying not to see what’s beneath the surface.

Gray’s Anatomy. Diagrams of dissected bodies. Scars and scratches on once-pristine buildings, automobiles, billboards. We close our eyes in most cases, turn our heads, and ignore the viscera. I’m rather attracted to it.

Here’s my proof.

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February 27, 2017 – Rodeo Finals

Mason Clements didn’t earn Sunday’s highest score, but his aggregate put him in the number one slot for this year’s Tucson Rodeo.

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I missed last years’ rodeo. Instead, I spent the time in Kansas with my family. It’s the first rodeo I’ve missed since 2011, and I certainly don’t intend to miss any future events. I’m not a huge advocate, really, but I do find the experience interesting. I put on what a close friend once called “Joe’s Rodeo Drag,” meaning my denim and cowboy hat, and I spend the week with people that I otherwise likely wouldn’t be around.

It’s challenging to photograph, and the people who participate are hard-working, genuine people – even if we are ideologically different. This is red-state territory, and I’m pretty much a blue-state kind of guy. But I appreciate all of the stories, conversations, and casual interactions with the staff, athletes, and volunteers.

It was an exciting year at the Tucson Rodeo, and I’m thankful to report that there wasn’t a single injury this year, livestock and human competitor alike. A couple of near-misses, and a few rough tumbles, but the crowd was pleased and everybody walked away in good health.

See you next year, Tucson Rodeo. I had no idea how much I missed you until I finally found my way back.

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The Walking Dead 7.11 – Hostiles and Calamities

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As mentioned in previous commentaries – and I like to believe that the issue is rather obvious – the cast of The Walking Dead has swollen to an almost unmanageable size. It’s a problem, because the idea of the world expanding, of civilization taking root after the apocalypse, is an intriguing one. It’s a great idea, in fact, and lives well on the page in the printed comic book series. But it appears to be more of a logistical and narrative nightmare to have this expanding world come alive on the screen.

We can probably assume, however, that the “All Out War” section of the story these recent episodes are building towards will cull the herd significantly. My fingers are certainly crossed that we eventually see some of the excess baggage cut loose. The garbage pickers, guaranteed, are going to be bullet-sponges; they are the least interesting, least developed characters, and they offer the least in the way of answers as to how their society functions, how they have survived, and why eighteen-months of story-time (roughly) has been enough time to influence the very structure of their language. Who is this Jadis, and through what mechanism has she achieved a leadership position? Raw physical power, charisma, persuasion, and extortion all seem unlikely – especially that ‘charisma and persuasion’ bit – her verbal communication skills have been reduced to two word, stilted sentence fragments. I predict that these characters will be quick to die.

But we all know who’s going to be sacrificed first though, don’t we? Why of course we do! It’s going to be none other than the young and lovable Benjamin from the Kingdom. Don’t remember him? Well, he’s the young one who has taken up the bo-staff under Morgan’s instruction. He’s baby-faced and sympathetic, trying his gosh-darned best to learn how to defend the kingdom like his father before him, all while taking on the responsibility of raising his younger brother. Morgan even appears to be influencing the young lad, injecting his philosophy of non-aggression. This kid was marked for death from the moment Benjamin’s sob-story character was introduced, and every little moment with him has been specifically designed to make audiences like him, pity him, and quietly root for him, so as to make his unavoidable – I guarantee it, unavoidable! – death a sad and meaningful one.

My guess is that Benjamin’s death is what’s going to change King Ezekiel’s mind about joining in the battle against Negan. I’d put money on it.

That all being said, this episode isn’t about the Kingdom or Hilltop communities at all. With all of the different communities and the bloated cast, all of this season’s episodes have been reduced to focusing on one group at a time, save typically for the cliffhanger-heavy outros. In this episode, we get more details as to how The Sanctuary functions, more specifically focusing on Dwight, who clearly appears to be having a change of heart regarding his position, and Eugene, who has recently been kidnapped and taken under Negan’s wing.

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It isn’t challenging to overlook characters like Eugene. Even dramatic moments – chomping Dwight in the crotch outside Alexandria last season – are easily funneled into humor, and Eugene has mostly been written as the butt of the joke. Despite this, actor Josh McDermitt turned in an exceptional performance. Throughout the episode, we are made to wonder whether he has some kind of secret plan to assist the Alexandrians (or maybe escape), or if he truly has accepted his role as one of Negan’s soldiers, along with all the responsibilities and, more importantly, with the sense of safety and all of the creature comforts. This question isn’t answered by the episode’s end, and I’m doubting we’ll have an answer until the season finale.

Negan’s fate is in the background of the whole episode. We wonder about Eugene’s allegiance, Rick and the Alexandrian’s are hunting for weapons and recruits to storm Negan’s compound, Dwight appears to be having second thoughts about his life with the Saviors, and even Negan’s wives are plotting to have him killed, requesting that Eugene manufacture poisonous pills. And, of course, just like Walter White’s ricin, we have some pretty obvious foreshadowing – lest we forget that we don’t ever see Eugene destroy the pills, even though he didn’t give them to the wives.

I’m guessing they’re going to make an appearance in the near future. Time will tell.

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February 26, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

A solemn moment, before the bull-ride.

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This is the cowboy that most spectators don’t see. Behind the bucking chutes, before the event begins, there is a clutch of young men taping themselves up, stretching out, and preparing to put their health and safety on the line for prize money, fame, and accolades. It’s a dangerous sport, and it’s common to see these men taking personal moments to say a prayer, focus, psyche themselves up.

Nobody in the grandstands is aware.

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February 25, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

Ryle Smith of Oakdale, CA, earned the second highest score, 9.3 seconds, in Friday’s steer wrestling event.

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I know. Two days in a row and almost the exact same picture. But there’s something about this particular event, steer wrestling, that totally captures my imagination. And hey, let’s not be coy, the event photographs really well. There’s urgency and heat and danger and friction. The rider, if he wants to take any money home from the competition, has a five-to-ten second window in which to achieve his goal. The hazer, his partner on horseback, has to try and guide the direction of the steer. If everything works out properly, including dismounting from a horse at a fifteen-mile-per-hour gait, the cowboy still has a three-hundred pound animal to contend with.

The air is electric when these cowboys ride. I know that there are complaints of animal abuse, that images of the event appear to project violence and cruelty. I could write volumes about the truth and the misconceptions about the sport, but that isn’t what today’s post is about.

Today’s post is a frozen frame, man and beast, and the lengths we go to in order to win a prize, put our best foot forward, dominate nature, survive an attack, get dirty.

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February 24, 2017 – Tucson Rodeo

Jabe Anderson III, of Dillon, MT, earning a 6.1 second time during Thursday’s steer wrestling event.

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Yesterday I found myself in familiar territory: the Tucson Rodeo. The Fiesta de los Vaqueros.

It’s bittersweet, now. It always will be, from this day until my last. I’ve spent my entire life pretty disinterested in sports and competition. The eye-liner and dreadlocks and high school were a pretty strong hint. I never had the time or the patience or the interest to learn the rules; football still confuses me, and baseball still bores me.

Several years ago, however, when I was unemployed and struggling to find work and fill the empty hours, an old college friend asked if I’d like to go to the Tucson Rodeo. He was a press photographer and said he’d fudge the facts a bit, call me his assistant, and get me a press pass. He was good like that, knowing that I was a motivated photographer with little that was going my way, few excuses to pick up my camera.

I hadn’t been to a rodeo since I was in elementary school, a field trip to the Kansas City Royal. I said ‘yes’ to my buddy, of course, even though I didn’t really feel any spark or drive to go. I knew I didn’t have any excuse not to go out and take pictures. And would you believe it? The fish out of water – the industrial rock androgynous artist – had a really great time behind the bucking chutes, smelling the livestock, watching the men and women riding beautiful, giant, muscled horses. It got into me, and it has never left.

For several years, my friend William and I, regardless of what was going on in our lives, found each other at the Tucson Rodeo Grounds. We photographed beside one another, and we huddled over our computers at the end of the day, flasks of whiskey or shared pitchers of beer at Danny’s Lounge, combing through all the images and critiquing one-another’s work.

Sports photography is radically different than any other kind of photography I was ever familiar with. Everything happens so incredibly quickly. You have to be focused. You have to try and anticipate what’s going to happen next. And you never walk away feeling like you did the best job; you always feel like you could have done it better. That’s good for a photographer. It’s good for an artist. It’s good to be in situations that challenge you.

My friend shot himself a couple of years ago. My best friend. He left his friends, his family, and his wife behind. This is my second rodeo without him. I almost don’t feel like going out and doing it anymore, except for this strange sense that I’m reconnecting with him every time I put on my cowboy boots and feel the crunch of dirt beneath my feet in the arena. All of the other people in the press trailer knew him, too, so we tell stories and reinforce our memories of him, our love for him.

It’s more than just cowboys and horses for me now.

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February 23, 2017 – Vintage Neon

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Before the Interstate Highway System was developed, state routes and roadside motels dotted the southwestern landscape. Privately owned businesses lined these thoroughfares with unique signage offering a variety of services for the long-distance traveler. Greasy-spoon cafés and auto-service stations shared the strip. With the introduction of the Interstate System, travel was faster and more convenient, but the quality of character was supplanted by larger chains and a decidedly more corporate appeal.

Denny’s and Auto-Zone replaced these local businesses, few of which survive today.

More than half a century ago now, this particular sign – a red and white vintage neon for Leo’s Auto Supply – was purchased and moved to the intersection of Glenn & Stone in Tucson, Arizona, by the proprieter of Don’s Hot Rod Shop. One of the owners, Leo Toia, had it relocated.

Along the Old Benson Highway, many of the small old roadside Motels survive, and Tucson boasts a host of vintage neon signs along the now-infamous Miracle Mile. Many of the old businesses have been lost, but there is a rich history here in Tucson, and this Leo’s Auto Supply sign is one of the survivors.

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