Rodeo Tales

Photography Series Chronicling an Alternative All-American Pastime

Rodeos are without doubt a quintessentially American tradition. You can probably picture one in your mind’s eye, full of traditional-looking cowboys. But American photographer, Ivan McClellan’s interest was piqued, when he heard about the Roy Leblanc Okmulgee Invitation Rodeo, described as a “black rodeo”. He just had to check it out, camera in tow.

“In Kansas City, I would always see black guys on horses at the park or on side streets, but I never gave much thought to it,” Ivan recalls. A documentarian friend of his told him about the rodeo over a drink one night. “It was a no brainer for me. As soon as he said the words ‘black rodeo,’ all of the men on horses in my old neighbourhood suddenly made sense.”

It was an eye-opening experience for Ivan, because what he saw challenged previous conceptions of what a rodeo was like. “The narrative was out of place – these cowboys weren’t your typical all-American, predominantly white, stoic heroes,” he tells us. “No, these people were tangible, gritty evidence of thriving Americana tradition, and they were so close to the place I call home – I had to tell their story.”

We were keen to hear about Ivan’s own story:

The Plus: How did you get into photography?
Ivan McClellan:
When I was young, the men who were around were all photographers. My mom was a makeup artist and her two friends Ray and Byron were photographers who shot R&B CD covers and proms. I bought my first camera in 2010 on a trip to Istanbul. Everything there was unfamiliar but I was fully engaged and brave because of the camera. Photography to me represented manliness and adventure.


TP: What do you think made the rodeo such a fruitful place to shoot?
I’ve always done my best work when I’ve been most uncomfortable. I knew nothing about this part of my culture, but as it turned out, exhibiting a sincere interest was enough to get me around. Somewhere between this curiosity and heightened physical conditions (sun exposure, giant bugs, smells, and police), I found myself in an atmosphere prime for reportage photography. Even the slightest details stood out.

TP: What’s your unique take on photography?
I keep my subjects interactive and engaged in and between every shot, and so, kind of like a conversation, they react to my dialogue, my mood, my perspective. It’s a moment between the two of us. When I figured that out, I was super embarrassed and deleted a bunch of photos I felt were too intimate. I’m generally a private and introverted person, but when I’m shooting, I’m all-in.

TP: Do you think rodeos will continue to remain relevant in the modern age?
I think that, because they are relics, they will survive. Mastery of a tangible skill, bravery, competition – these are qualities missing from our hyper-sanitized, digital culture and I think people need to get in the mud periodically, get their hands on something. And a rodeo is about as analog as you can get. So long as the rodeo stays irrelevant and doesn’t get rid of the boots, or the hats, I think it’ll be around for a long time.

TP: Why did you opt to have this series in black and white?
Everything was brown. Brown horses, brown people, dirt, clothes. When colour no longer adds anything to the narrative of the photo, I always go with black and white.

TP: Would you ever have a go at a rodeo yourself?
Horses are gorgeous, powerful creatures and I have no interest in being on one. Their eyes are completely black, there’s no way to gauge their emotions.

TP: Where will your photography take you next?
I would like to do a few more shoots around black American culture- I think a photography series could speak to humanize the black experience not only for the audience, but also for myself. I have some ideas for series on barber and beauty shops, and also on baptist churches.