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.


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.