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Rodeo photographer, Western legend Louise Serpa dead at 86

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Rodeo photographer, Western legend Louise Serpa dead at 86

  • Rodeo photographer Louise Serpa in her Tucson home, Sept. 2006.
    Will Seberger/TucsonSentinel.comRodeo photographer Louise Serpa in her Tucson home, Sept. 2006.
  • Jim Mihalek on Hud (1971) is Serpa's most widely published photograph.
    Louise Serpa/Courtesy Tucson RodeoJim Mihalek on Hud (1971) is Serpa's most widely published photograph.

Rodeo photographer, Tucson fixture, mother and legend of the West Louise Serpa died Thursday.

Serpa, 86, had battled cancer for more than three years. She is survived by daughters Lauren Serpa and Mia Larocque, and grandson Taylor Grammar.

Now that the news is out of the way, I'm stuck trying to figure out how to write an obituary for someone who helped set the course for my life. Louise was my friend and maybe my colleague, but was also so many things that I aspire to be.

I first came to know Louise through her work. Some called her the Ansel Adams of rodeo. Given her storytelling ability, I'll suggest she was more like the Eddie Adams, or maybe the Robert Capa – quite possibly the Larry Burrows of rodeo.

But, then, my suggestion would probably be as off-the-mark as the Adams metaphor. Louise was the Serpa of rodeo photography.

Her work captured all the elegance, essence and grit of a 900-pound horse, or a 1,200-pound bull, giving its rider eight seconds, more or less, of sheer terror and excitement. But beyond the arena, Louise explored the people and places that made rodeo. After all, rodeo is a way of life – not a sport, despite corporate attempts to make it one.

I got to poke through her personal collection with her once at her home in Tucson some years ago. Alongside her more known works, I found Western landscapes and a surprising number of portraits. Every last print captured the spirit of rodeo; even the ones Louise wrote off as duds and shoved aside.

Like all the greats Louise knew her subjects and made their lives her art. She told amazing stories in a couple hundredths of a second.

If an artist is the product of her experiences and surroundings, Louise's work in and around the arena crystallized the guts and independent streak that made her as tough as her subjects.

She was born in 1925 in New York (proof that there's hope for us city-slickers). In '43 she took a summer job as a ranch hand in Wyoming where she met Lex Connelly, one of the founders of modern rodeo, who introduced her to the lifestyle.

After studying opera and graduating with a music degree from Vassar, she sang and danced up and down the East Coast in support of wartime USO programs.

"I went to Vassar and did all the proper things. I was married in the East to a proper Yale man, who is still a good friend of mine, but it wasn't a good fit for both of us, and we divorced," Serpa said in a 2006 interview.

"Finally, I had a bellyful of the whole thing and decided I'd have guts enough to blow it and leave, which I did," she said.

From there, she headed to Scottsdale in a secondhand 6-cylinder Dodge with a dog and no job. She met and married Tex Serpa, yielding her surname and two girls. Louise and Tex worked their way to Twentynine Palms, Calif., and up the coast to Oregon where she took over a family sheep ranch.

In '59 or '60 (as with all legends of the West, the specific dates are a little fuzzy and mostly irrelevant), Louise divorced Tex and moved her girls, broke and jobless, to Tucson where she'd live out her days.

Shortly after arriving in the Old Pueblo, Louise's youngest took ill with rheumatoid arthritis and Louise knew she needed money.

With a firsthand knowledge of rodeo and an Argus C3 camera, she struck out to junior rodeos and would make pictures of people's kids one weekend, and sell them 5x7s the next for 75 cents.

The rest, as it's said, is history. Louise went on to be the first Pro Rodeo Cowboy Association-sanctioned woman to work the arena as a photographer. In 2005, the PRCA handed her a saucer-sized belt buckle, acknowledging her as photographer of the year at the National Finals. According to Louise, on presentation of the buckle the emcee said, "It's about time."

Among her accolades and achievements, Louise is an inducted member of both the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum. Her work hangs in galleries all over the world, including fashion designer Ralph Lauren's personal collection.

A 1996 documentary, "When the Dust Settles," chronicled her life and work, while the 1995 book "Rodeo" included her photos and commentary from Western author Larry McMurtry.

A more down-to-earth indication of her impact was the 20 minutes or more it took Louise to get to her seat at the Tucson Rodeo in her later years. Seemingly everyone there knew her, and stopped her to say hello. As a testament to her friendliness, she'd talk to all of them.

There are a lot of things I wish I had the chance to say to Louise before she mounted up and rode out into the ether.

Louise, you made an indelible impression on me personally and professionally. I am one of thousands who will remember you as much for the pictures you leave behind as for your dedication to doing things your way, the right way and with serious guts. It was my pleasure to know you, and I am honored to have stood in the mud next to you.

So long, Louise; and thanks for everything.

'Spirit of Rodeo'

“Spirit of Rodeo Shared in Images,” an exhibit of Serpa’s photographs, along with the work of her daughter, professional photographer Mia Larocque, opens Friday at the Tucson Airport’s Lower Link Gallery. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

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