A young Salt Lake City photographer documents rodeo action outside the ring.
It all started with him snapping photos of his friends skateboarding. Or was it snowboarding? Michael Friberg isn’t exactly sure when he took his first photo — or of what — but he does remember when he decided to make photography his life’s work.
It was while on a humanitarian trip to Uganda in 2007, with his grandfather’s old Pentax SLR in hand, that he became captivated by documentary photography. “I had taken my medium-format camera and around 50 rolls of black-and-white film with me. When I got back and developed the film, something clicked and I got really excited.”
The Texas native, who turns 26 in March, has called Salt Lake City home ever since he moved there for college and stayed for the year-round snowboarding. But even though his aunt owned a ranch and he begrudgingly went to rodeos with her growing up, Friberg didn’t associate himself with Western culture until he moved to New York City for a year after college. “I had no appreciation for [the West] until I left,” he says. “It’s funny that I had to leave Texas to actually start shooting rodeos and Western themes.”
After moving back to Salt Lake City, he soon found himself interning at the Standard-Examiner in Ogden and attending the rodeos he’d avoided as a kid. After taking the obligatory picture for the sports page, he’d hang around to snap some behind-the-scenes shots, capturing the action outside the ring.
“I was fascinated with the cultural side of it,” he explains. “[These photos] tell more of a story about what is actually going on. I was just trying to show a different, quirky side of it.” His work from the Ogden Pioneer Days Rodeo speaks volumes: the mud-soaked aftermath of a successful spin around the rainy, freezing-cold ring; a cowboy rehearsing his upcoming bronc ride on his saddle alone; a bull waiting patiently for its own eight seconds of glory.
Friberg was most intrigued by the cowboys’ backstage preparation before getting in the chute. “They all had this intense concentration to get pumped up for it. I felt like I was photographing this sacred ritual. I could get right up in their faces and they had no idea I was even there.” He was also captivated by the comaraderie
between the competitors, who were up against each other one moment and then wholeheartedly rooting each other on the next. “There would be 10 or so guys jampacked into this tiny area on top of the platform cheering [the rider] on and pumping him up. I would squeeze in there and try to raise my arms high enough to shoot it.”
But shooting the sideline scenes doesn’t mean he’s missed out on the rough-and-tumble aspects of the sport. At the first rodeo he covered, Friberg almost lost his trusty side arm when a loose bronco slammed into the wall in front of him, sending a huge wave of mud over him and another photograper and placing his camera in harm’s way.
While he still shoots the occassional rodeo, the recently married photographer boasts an ever-expanding portfolio, exploring often-overlooked aspects of society, such as a prison graduation and the last wild bison population in Montana. Currently he’s undertaking a yearlong survey of Mormon culture and history in Utah, exploring how a predominant religion affects everyday life in his region.
He may not recall the exact details that brought him to this career path, but he’s nailed down the motivation: “I’m just endlessly curious about stories and the minutiae of life. Photography is an excuse to be really nosy and explore things that I wouldn’t normally get to experience.”
To see more of Michael Friberg’s work, visit www.michaelfriberg.com.