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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Movie Review – Jane Got A Gun

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It isn’t possible to have a frank discussion about “Jane Got A Gun” without mentioning it’s labored creation. Originally announced in 2012, an avalanche of problems tossed this movie into production purgatory. It’s important to note these troubles because, without mincing words, it absolutely shows in the final cut. I can scarcely recall a film with such a short run time that felt so relentlessly long.

Billed as a western co-starring Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, and Michael Fassbender – to be directed by Lynne Ramsey – this esteemed property hit a wall at breakneck speed. In 2013, Fassbender abandoned the project in pursuit of a more ambitious “X-Men” feature. Edgerton was shifted into the vacated role and Jude Law was hired to replace Edgerton. Director Lynne Ramsey then abandoned the project, thrusting the whole production into legal proceedings before Gavin O’Connor stepped in to direct. Director of photography Darius Khondji then left. Then Jude Law left, expressing that he’d only stepped in to work with Lynne Ramsey.

I could go on, but it’s the same game of “musical chairs” that isn’t worthy of further discussion. Slated for an August 2014 release, the date was postponed – twice. It finally landed in the post-holiday wasteland of mid-January 2016. With virtually no marketing, no press screenings, and no hopes of finding a staid audience, it’s a near-miracle it’s even in theaters. No resemblance to an Aerosmith song title could help. This one was dead on arrival.

If we consider these woes, however, we aren’t surprised to learn that “Jane Got A Gun” missed its mark. To its credit, the film isn’t half as bad as one might expect, delivering a couple of well-staged scenes and solid performances  (especially by Natalie Portman). The film plays like a classic Western, and this is where it simply doesn’t work. Rather than attempt to reinvent or deconstruct the genre – as contemporary moviegoers might mildly expect – the narrative is weighed down by poorly developed characters and a staggering snail’s pace, with a series of ham-fisted flashbacks used, poorly, to elucidate the emotional complexity of the characters.

The film is clunky, and where modern audiences might expect dynamism in the characters, we see tired archetypes, caricatures that hop about the stage like marionettes. We can barely bring ourselves to care about their fates. That’s a problem.

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Set in 1870s New Mexico Territory, the film opens as retired outlaw Hammond (Noah Emmerich) returns to his remote home where his wife (Portman) is waiting. Riddled with bullets, he collapses from his horse and informs her that “The Bishop Boys are coming.” So-called “mystery box” setups like this are a wonderful device – “who are the Bishop boys?” – that can engage the audience, but in this instance it carries no gravity. We don’t know who he’s speaking of. All we see is that Jane knows who they are, and that they’re definitely bad news.

She dresses his wounds and leaves him to convalesce, delivering their daughter to a neighboring ranch for safety. She then seeks help from from Dan Frost (Edgerton) to help defend herself from the inexorable onslaught.

Through a series of clumsy flashbacks, we learn that Frost was once Jane’s fiance. He left to fight in the Civil War, unaware that she was pregnant. He is eventually declared dead and she she decides to leave their Missouri home, heading west in search of a new life. Believing John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) will help secure safe passage, she is instead sold into sexual slavery and her daughter is murdered by one of Bishop’s underlings. She is rescued by another of Bishop’s cohort, Ham, who steals her away to start a quiet life together.

Enter Dan Frost, who we learn is alive and well, and has tracked Jane across the country only to learn of her new life and her new daughter with another man. Needless to say, he isn’t excited about the prospect of defending Jane and her wounded husband. Naturally, he shows up at the last minute to lend a hand. What the film establishes is that at least four or five years have passed since Ham betrayed his dapper and ruthless employer (his daughter with Jane is our clue), and the film never adequately explains why Bishop is so hell-bent on exacting his revenge. Sure, one of his men quit. Perhaps Bishop took a loss when Jane escaped the brothel – but we don’t even know if the brothel belonged to Bishop or if he simply sold her, in which case he wouldn’t have lost anything. Is it his pride that was wounded? Is there an “honor among theives” theme that’s playing out? We are never satisfied with an answer.

There is a final showdown, but I will spare the details. It plays out largely as we might expect, with a shoe-horned twist at the very end that the cast does its absolute best to play seriously. The bad guys lose, of course, but I won’t tell you what happens with Ham and Frost and their uncomfortable love triangle with Jane.

The stand-alone performances are admittedly good. Edgerton plays a terse and heartbroken rancher as stiff and stoic, nihilistic and whiskey-sipping as we might expect from a heartbroken lonely man. Throughout most of the film he staggers around like a haggard ghost who’s lost its way. Portman does an excellent job breathing life into her character. Half the appeal of the film is seeing her in boots and dress, smudges of dirt on her face, confidently wielding a rifle. I never would have imagined her in a role such as this, but hers is a compelling performance of feminine strength, spitting words through clenched teeth with a convincing mid-western Oklahoma drawl. McGregor is good, too, playing the snake-like villain so expertly I expect some viewers will fail to recognize it’s even him.

The problem isn’t in the performances. It’s mostly the pacing and the flashback structure, which attempts to fill in the background story before the guns-blazing finale. This serves to distract more than inform the film, not necessarily for their content but for how inelegantly these rocks are thrown through the windowpane of the story. The Bishop character is poorly written. He is the most archetypal “Snidely Whiplash” villain one could possibly expect. Perpetually clad in black, swarthy, mustachioed, a cigar clenched between his teeth in every single scene. All that this cartoon character lacked was a moment to twist his mustache and laugh exaggeratedly at just about nothing for just about too darn long.

This film must be filed under “potential for greatness but didn’t get there.” The skeletal structure is there. Not every story needs to be complex in order to be eloquent and compelling. The problem is that the emotional undercurrent isn’t properly expressed; the connective tissue of the plot just isn’t good. Gavin O’Connor brings this story to the screen, but it doesn’t have any personal touch to it, nothing to elevate it to greatness.

I can’t remember rolling my eyes so much at a feature film. It’s a forgettable movie that could have been special but just doesn’t make it. It isn’t worth the price of admission, although it could make for a fun home viewing. At the very least, I’m happy to see films like this and “The Hateful Eight” coming out – the western genre is in need of a revival. We are almost at full saturation with comic book films, and the comic book bubble will eventually burst – mark my words. It looks like the western might just be making a comeback.

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Tombstone & Tianya Milagro

Tianya - Big Nose Kates postThere’s nothing more dangerous than a beautiful woman packing attitude…and pistolas.

Everybody knows Tombstone from the movies. A few folks are lucky enough to travel through the desert valleys of Southern Arizona and lay their own eyes on it. It’s a small town, and one’s liable to miss it if they blink. It’s a bit of a theme park now, a mixture of pageantry and bravado, with an entertaining contingent of leather-clad bikers who walk the boardwalks side-by-side with entertainers dressed in 19th Century Western attire.

The West was won and the mining operations eventually slowed down. There are no Apaches in the hills to threaten the camp. The barges that ran north along the San Pedro River are just about forgotten, and the short-line railroads that carried the ore North to the Union Pacific line have been decommissioned. Daily reenactments of the famous “Shootout at the OK Corral” and a healthy flow of live music and adult beverage have prevented the town from turning into a wax museum.

Tombstone attracts a certain kind of person. Eccentricity is a prerequisite for anybody who’d move to a town and wear 1880’s period clothing for a living, adopt the language & mannerisms of frontiersmen and women, and exist under the punishing heat of Sonoran Desert summers. It also takes a certain kind of madman to spot the pretty girl in the saloon and hand her two pistols and insist she hop up on the bar for a photograph.

But that’s what Tianya did. She was performing with the Cochise College Dance Club, and that attractive specimen – fair skin in the sun-drenched thoroughfare, belly-dance threads, all hips and legs – turned a lot of heads. She finished her shot of tequila, plucked those pistols from his mitts and, with a puckish grin, hopped up onto the bar. She takes to the spotlight quite well, and the world is most certainly her stage.

To my own lamentations, the photographs didn’t turn out well enough to publish; the saloon was crowded and the light was pitifully low. Rather than scrap them entirely, it made a lot more sense to paint the scene instead. This would be the result of those efforts and, if I’m to toot a high note from my own little horn, it captures her spirit quite well.

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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.