A series on the rise of Black women in rodeo. Meet the American photographer who is showcasing an unseen side of Western culture
By Precious Adesina
Photography by Ivan McClellan
Photographer Ivan McClellan, 39, grew up in Kansas, where he would go to large rodeos every year. He spent his free time as a child watching shows such as Bonanza, the second longest running Western in the US, and loved films starring actors John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. “I really thought of the cowboy as a young man and a representation of all of the honourable American traits. They have integrity, they have grit, they keep at it until the job is done and they’re truly free and independent,” he tells me.
But despite his strong affinity with Western life, he never associated the archetype with Black people – the people portrayed in these shows and at the events he attended were all white men. This changed when he met a filmmaker at a party in Portland, Oregon, in March 2015. “I was sitting by myself and somebody tapped me on the shoulder,” Ivan says, describing the person as a tall Black man with a large afro who introduced himself as Charles Perry. “He told me that he was working on a documentary about Black cowboys. I laughed at him because I thought that wasn’t a thing.” Charles convinced Ivan to attend a rodeo with him to take pictures, which he eventually did in August of that year. This experience would change the course of his career for good.
At Roy LeBlanc Invitational Rodeo in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, Ivan was surprised by what he saw. Black people in cowboy hats with their braids hanging out; women in bedazzled Western gear and matching long acrylic nails; hip hop blasting from the PA system. “I was used to rodeos, but there I was blown away by how parts of Black culture merged with Western culture,” he says. “It felt like going to church growing up. Everybody was dressed in their best – they were there to impress.” Since then, Ivan has travelled across the country visiting up to 20 Black rodeos a year where he takes photographs of the people he meets in a bid to showcase an unseen side of Western culture.
Over six years, Ivan has also grown to become a coveted part of this community, which he believes is down to being Black himself. “It means I have an authentic relationship with people that I shoot. The photos feel real and they have more impact rather than it just being somebody that I met casually,” he explains. This thought is inspired by photographers who have done this themselves, singling out photojournalist Gordon Parks, who is known for his documentary photographs touching on civil rights, poverty, race relations and urban life in the 1940s to 1970s. “He was part of the culture that he was documenting so he captured it with a level of sensitivity and honesty that a white photographer couldn’t achieve if they went into Harlem,” he says. Consequently Ivan has become friends with the people he photographs, noting that they even call him simply to chat. Small Black rodeo circles means he often ends up meeting relatives: “I can probably draw a family tree and connect each one of them to each other.”
His striking family photos include a photograph of mother and daughter, Kanesha Jackson and Kortnee Solomon, who are barrel racers in Hempstead, Texas. Ivan’s photos show their intimate relationship to each other, surrounding nature and their beautiful large horses. In some shots, they smile and laugh. In others they embody the cowgirl persona; staring fiercely into the camera or into the distance while going about their day. “I know Kortnee’s father, Cory Solomon, who’s a big time [rodeo] champion,” he explains. He initially photographed the mother and daughter to build up his portfolio, and the shots, alongside his other work, gained the attention of big brands. “I ended up getting contacted by Wrangler. They wanted some Black women for a campaign and I recommended Kanesha and Kortnee. We ended up doing the campaign for them and then the same thing for a company called Boot Barn.”
According to Ivan, 10-year-old Kortnee is an up-and-coming star. “She has won numerous awards including the Junior Barrel Racing Championship at the Bill Pickett rodeo,” he explains. “She also won Rookie of the Year when she was eight years old.” The rise of Black women in rodeo is largely due to the nation’s largest and oldest Black rodeo Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (BPIR), which also has a predominately female leadership team. “It was started by Lu Vasson in the eighties. And, after he passed, his wife, Valeria Howard-Cunningham took over the event,” Ivan says.
“It exists because Black athletes weren’t allowed to compete in white rodeos for a long time. It was created to level the playing field and give Black athletes a place to grow,” he adds, noting that today, the biggest rodeos in the country, such as the National Finals Rodeo (NFR), are hard for Black people to enter as it requires a lot of financial backing through sponsorships, which is difficult for Black people to procure. “There’s a handful of guys who have competed at the NFR but not a significant amount – and not enough compared to the talent that you see in athletes at the Bill Pickett Rodeo. We’re in 2021 and there’s never been a Black woman who’s competed at the NFR.”
And there isn’t a dearth of inspirational and talented cowgirls to draw from. Another subject of Ivan’s photography is Erin Brown from Philadelphia. Erin first learnt about cowgirls aged 6 when her father took her to visit the Fletcher Street Stables. The trip encouraged her to incorporate horse riding into her life, making her one of the youngest riders of the club. Over a 30 year period, Fletcher went from a junior to a club leader where she also teaches other young enthusiasts to ride.
But despite being immersed in rodeo culture, Ivan tries to maintain some distance from it and has chosen not to get too involved in the activity himself, which he believes gives him more of an objective perspective on Western life. “It just feels like that would bring me too close to the culture. I’m not actually a cowboy myself, though I’ve got a couple of boots and hats.”
It’s clear that, for Ivan, the traits he appreciated in cowboys growing up has remained firm, but it is no longer something exclusive to the white communities he saw. As you may expect, seeing Black cowboys and cowgirls has transformed the way he also thinks of himself. “Regardless of the fact that some of them have no resources or funding to raise horses or travel around the country, they do it anyway. That level of self-knowledge is really inspiring. And it’s given me a lot more self-confidence and flexibility to realise my own truths. I now know who I am and what I want to do,” he says. “I can establish the life that I want. There’s no rules.”