Nebraska’s small-town rodeo culture captured in new book

Action at the Fort Robinson rodeo from "Rodeo Nebraska" (Photo by Mark Harris)
Mark Harris shot 82 events over eight years for his book. (Photo by Mike Tobias, NET News)
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July 14, 2016 - 6:45am

Mark Harris first experienced Nebraska’s small town rodeos as a kid in McCook. Years later, the photographer and writer from Lincoln set out to tell the story of the state’s rodeo culture; the people, places and tradition. Mike Tobias of NET News talked with Harris about his book, “Rodeo Nebraska,” and the eight-year adventure it took to create it.


MIKE TOBIAS, NET NEWS: What is it about the world of Nebraska rodeos that got your interest as a photographer and as a storyteller?

VIDEO: "Picturing Rodeo" segment from NET's "Nebraska Stories"

 


Photographer/author Mark Harris is also associate director of the University of Nebraska State Museum. (Image by David Koehn, NET)

 


Steer wresting in Clearwater, one of Harris' favorite rodeos (Photo by Mark Harris)

 


A young rodeo fan in Bridgeport (Photo by Mark Harris)

 


A bullfighter saves a downed rider in Oakland (Photo by Mark Harris)

MARK HARRIS, AUTHOR/PHOTOGRAPHER, “RODEO NEBRASKA”: As a photographer the world of rodeos drew me in because it's just such a photo-rich environment. You have action, you have little kids, you have adults, there's a lot of color, the light is usually great because it's in the evenings. I started out with that in mind, just looking at the color, and the action, the wrecks and the fury. The more I got into it, the more I started falling in love with the culture and these people. They're such an unusual group of Nebraskans that's a very small subculture of this rodeo crowd, and it dates back 150 years. I just needed to find out what compelled these people to do what they do and how they got so good.

TOBIAS: What did you come away thinking compelled them to do what they do?

HARRIS: These rodeo competitors are all driven by one single factor, and it doesn't matter if they're riding broncs or bulls, or if they're roping and racing. It's all about adrenaline, these are type A people and they're addicted to what they do, and they love it. Sure there are also sorts of cultural components that draw them together, there's comradery, there's a little bit of money. But most, and especially in events like bull riding, it's not logical to go out and do what you do for the amount of money that they make. They are truly addicted to this sport.

TOBIAS: You shot 82 rodeo events over the span of eight years. That's a lot of rodeo.

HARRIS: That is a lot of rodeo. My heaviest summer was 19 rodeos. They're all on the weekends, so that meant a lot of time heading out on a Friday afternoon and getting home on a Sunday. I really crisscrossed the state a lot.

TOBIAS: Any favorite places?

HARRIS: Some of my favorite rodeos are some of the smallest ones, like Clearwater. Callaway is a great little rodeo out in the middle of nowhere. Bladen, which is fairly near Lincoln, is a great rodeo. There is really no judging a rodeo’s quality by the population of its county or its city. I found that some of the smallest rodeos are some of the best rodeos.

TOBIAS: For a photographer and a storyteller what makes a rodeo a great rodeo?

HARRIS: It's almost intangible. You can't quite put your finger on it but you know when it's going on that it's great. It has to do with the atmosphere, it has to do with the mood of the crowd, has a lot to do with the announcer and the rodeo clown who sort of fill the gaps in between the rides, and of course it has to do with the competitors.

TOBIAS: You probably took thousands of photos over the span of those eight years. Are there any in the book that are truly favorites that really standout to you?

HARRIS: I did take tens of thousands of photos, and it was torture weeding them down to the finals. There are some photos that I love in the book a lot. Some of them involve the little kids at the rodeo, a lot of them are really close calls where I happened to catch this split second of chaos that the human eye can't really comprehend.

HARRIS: I have a shot of a bull rider who had been dismounted. He is face down in the dirt and he still has his cowboy hat on, so he hasn't been roughed up yet but the bull is right on him, the bull is just above his neck. The bullfighter, these guys that save these guys from getting mauled, has his hand virtually on the bull’s head at that point. It's this amazing trio of bull, bullfighter and downed bull rider. I took a lot of shots that I really loved at Fort Robinson. It's just such a beautiful setting; they have a little rodeo that they run every week. One of my favorite shots at Full Robinson is of a female rider just warming up her horse. She's wearing great colors, she's up against this amazing background and I caught her horse in mid-prance.

TOBIAS: What's the hardest part about attempting to photograph a rodeo?

HARRIS: There are a lot of technical difficulties in trying to shoot a rodeo. Part of making a great photograph is eliminating as much clutter as you possibly can. It involved a lot of climbing, standing on top of fences, climbing halfway up light poles, hanging off of the crow’s nest, and getting into the arena. I mean some of my best shots are when I was standing right outside the chutes when the broncs came out, which involved a lot of jumping out of the way and a couple of close calls. I entered the arena on a few occasions when the bulls were in there only when I knew the stock contractor really well and they trusted me enough to do so.

TOBIAS: Talk about one of those close calls.

HARRIS: The worst close call was in Arthur, Nebraska. I was in the middle of the arena, which seems like it might be safer than being right outside the chutes, but it's not because at the point where the rider is off the horse the two pickup men have to ride in and contain the wild bronc and get him back into the arena. It's a wild threesome going through the arena at breakneck speeds, and you never know where it's going to end up. It was deep wet sand, and before I knew what was going on three horses were coming right at me. Luckily the stock contractor, who's a great horsemen, took the whole procession hard left and missed me by about three feet as I was doing a somersault backwards. The crowd always loves that when I go over, and someone without fail will snicker or say something like, "Did you get a shot of that? Did you get a great shot of that?"

TOBIAS: In one chapter you address something that's beyond just pictures, and landscape, and people. You shared your thoughts on whether rodeos are cruel to the animals that are used for the competition.

HARRIS: Rodeo's a brutal sport and sometimes there are incidents where the animals are injured. The humans are injured much more frequently, but there are animal injuries, there are animal deaths. It's just an unavoidable fact in rodeo. When you compare rodeo to a lot of other sports that involve animals, including horse racing, it's relatively rare that any animal is hurt. I kept my own statistics and they matched all of the national statistics that are kept. They're always trying to improve methods and technology to help the animals, to keep them from being injured. These stock contractors have a huge interest in keeping all their stock healthy. Some of these broncs and bulls are worth many, many thousands of dollars. They do everything they can but you know, when the chutes fly anything can happen, anybody can get injured and that includes the animals.

TOBIAS: What did you end up learning about the culture of rodeo in this state?

HARRIS: The Nebraska rodeo culture is a really tight knit community and it's a very tiny subculture in the U.S. comparatively. In Nebraska it's a very strong subculture. These families travel the state every summer and if there's one thing that I learned it's that they're truly dedicated to the sport of rodeo, whether they're riding broncs and bulls, or whether they're doing speed events. They're truly addicted to what they do and they love it. They're there to support each other.

TOBIAS: In the end what do you hope people take away from your book?

HARRIS: First of all that they have a better understanding of it. There are a lot of misconceptions about rodeo. I address all of those. Mainly, though, I think I would like people to see what I saw in rodeo, what drew me to it and that is this sheer beauty of the competition, the sheer craziness of it. There is a lot of craziness in rodeo. And the family atmosphere. All of these things that sort of make Nebraska great is sort of summed up in the sport of rodeo in a way.

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