Quiet sadness for rodeo photogs this year
Rodeo photography is an experience difficult to describe. It's not the same as sitting in the stands, overlooking the arena at altitude. Photographers are ground-level, eye-to-eye with the livestock. It's dirty, a little dangerous, filled with nervous energy, and it's fun.
Down in the photo pit, the earth rumbles as hooves pound into the dirt. At the Tucson Rodeo Grounds, the photo pit is directly in the line of fire during the rough-stock events, right across from the bucking chutes. Broncos often break forward, forcing the contingent of rodeo and sports photographers to hit the deck, cover their equipment, and protect themselves.
Will Seberger would never miss a rodeo. He was an exceedingly brilliant photojournalist who had a special talent for covering rodeo. The excitement of being in the arena drove him to produce a portfolio of stunning photographs. Even while the PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) puts strict limits on how photographers can use images gathered from these events, Will always strove to create the most unusual, unique, and expressive images possible.
Will had a casual friendship with legendary rodeo photographer Louise Serpa, too. He even took her portrait once, and the two enjoyed meeting up every year at the rodeo grounds. Considered by many to be the "Ansel Adams of rodeo," Serpa's photographs document a half-century of rodeo.
Like Will, she never missed a rodeo, covering every Tucson Rodeo from 1963 to 2011. Additionally, she was the first woman that the Professional Rodeo Association ever allowed into the rodeo arena and, in 1999, was inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.
There was a quiet sadness in the press room this year at the 90th annual Fiesta de los Vaqueros, which wrapped up last week. Without knowing that Louise was up in the stands with her camera, and without Will's wry humor down in the photo pit, it was difficult to get through the events. From other photographers and journalists, to rodeo committee members and even security personnel, it seemed like everybody knew Will and liked him. We all exchanged stories, shook hands, tried our best to laugh and smile.
I shot my first rodeo five years ago, as an assistant to Will. It was cold and rainy for a lot of that year's rodeo. I remember numb fingers, muddy boots, damaged camera equipment. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I understood, almost instantly, why he was so addicted to rodeo. I was hooked.
Like many of the other photographers at the Tucson Rodeo this year, I have been inspired by a great deal of the work he did. And if Louise Serpa is the Ansel Adams of rodeo, then Will Seberger is the Jay Maisel with a dash of Cartier-Bresson — colorful, crisp, brimming with kinetic energy.
I will always think of my friend when I slip on my cowboy boots and head out to the rodeo.