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.

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“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.”

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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.

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TP: What do you think made the rodeo such a fruitful place to shoot?
IM:
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?
IM:
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.

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TP: Do you think rodeos will continue to remain relevant in the modern age?
IM:
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?
IM:
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.

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TP: Would you ever have a go at a rodeo yourself?
IM:
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?
IM:
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.

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