It's summer; that time of year where children run free in the streets and the only sport on TV is baseball.
For me, summer is rodeo season. Rodeo isn't something a lot of the country is familiar with. Everyone knows what one is, but few have had the pleasure of attending one. For many, rodeos are a relic of the past. They represent an agrarian lifestyle that is all but dead in much of the USA.
That's not the case for middle America. Rodeo is alive and very well in ranch states like Texas, Nebraska and Wyoming (among others).
The first rodeo I attended was the granddaddy of 'em all - Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, WY. Cheyenne is as big as it gets in the rodeo circuit; the Super Bowl for real life cowboys (not the ones who wear blue and white on Sundays in the fall).
It was 2008 and I was a year into working with Bill Frakes. By that point we were doing more and more multimedia productions and fewer and fewer pure still shoots. My first year on the job had one giant steep learning curve, but I liked the creative freedom of multimedia production. I was part of the process and that felt good.
I had one problem for Cheyenne. To photograph the rodeo, photographers have to dress in full cowboy clothing. That means a cowboy hat and a cowboy shirt tucked into blue jeans held up by a leather belt. I needed a new wardrobe. To fix the problem, we had to build in time for shopping in Cheyenne before the rodeo began.
Our assignment was to create a photo gallery and multimedia for Sports Illustrated for Kids. For each day of the rodeo, Bill and I split up with different cameras and lenses and took as many photos combined as we could.
I walked around the grand stands at least a dozen times a day. I went back in the “locker room” area where cowboys waited for their events to start. I went in the chutes as bull and bronc riders took off, thrown side to side by large and angry animals.
If I wasn't taking pictures I was walking around with a microphone and recorder, stopping to talk to as many cowboys as possible. This was - and still is - my favorite part of the multimedia process. I've always been more interested in the story than the single photograph. Interviewing random strangers in different parts of the country (or world) gives me a glimpse into the culture and people that a photograph alone does not.
The folks in Cheyenne were all friendly and more than a little amused by my clear outsider status. I never did - and still haven't - bought cowboy boots. My tennis shoes gave me away as a clear foreigner.
By the end of the event we had a multimedia for the web, a leading off for the magazine and extremely dusty clothes - I had one outfit for three days.
I've since been to several more rodeos - all in Nebraska - and my outsider status lessens every time. I now own more than one cowboy shirt - three, to be exact - and they feel more comfortable on my skin every time I wear them. I still don't wear cowboy boots - they just don't feel right on my Florida feet - but most people are willing to look past that faux pas and answer my questions anyway.