From high fashion to chute-side, portraitist Jeff Berlin takes a walk in a pair of boots.
“I think my rodeo pictures are a little different,” says photographer Jeff Berlin, who’s been taking portraits of men and women for his ongoing series Rodeo in the American West for the last 10 years.
In rodeo arenas filled with big buckles and bigger straw hats, Berlin discovered the same thing he found when he was shooting fashion in Milan and Paris with a tony clientele that included L’Oréal Paris, Vogue Italia, and Madame Figaro. “The cowboys’ pants are pressed and creased, and the rodeo girls’ hair is curled just so,” he says. “The fashion and glamour of it I just love. If you look at my pictures, they’re very fashion-driven.”
A native New Yorker, Berlin discovered rodeos by accident. Burned-out on fashion photography after 17 years in the business, he decided to put his pilot’s license to use flying planes and reviewing them for aviation magazines, which is what he was doing when he met PRCA steer wrestler K.C. Jones in 2005. His assignment: fly Jones in a single-engine Cirrus SR22 for a week to rodeos in Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, Montana, South Dakota, and Arkansas — all places where Jones was competing as part of the professional rodeo circuit known as “Cowboy Christmas,” the week leading up to the July Fourth holiday.
“I was in Window Rock, Arizona, at the Navajo Nation Fair Open Indian Rodeo at sunset,” Berlin remembers. “As the lights in the arena grew brighter, everything sparkled. It was an extraordinary moment. I was near a fence, and the strength and power of the horses running up against the fence during the bucking event and the way everything was glittering in the light — it was a fascinating spectacle. I fell in love with it. I’ve been going to the rodeo ever since.”
Over the next decade, Berlin learned about the sport, the competitors, and the etiquette of approaching someone for a shot. He swapped out his Adidas tennis shoes for a pair of Tony Lamas and learned to swing a rope and tie down a dummy calf.
Rodeo brought him back to photography, and in return he brought his own aesthetic to rodeo. “My visual education has been the fashion centers of the world, so my eye is informed by that. I’m picky and detail-oriented, so nothing is ever by chance in my pictures.”
Among the snorting bulls, sweaty horses, and nervous cattle, Berlin taps into the beauty and elegance of it all — of the sport itself and of the competitors who dress the part and wear their prizes in buckles and sashes and fringed leather chaps. Part of what he sees is what’s on the outside. Waterfalls of curls coming out of felt hats. Pearl snap buttons on crisply pressed shirts. But he’s aiming for something deeper: “I want to see past the rodeo into who they are. I’m trying to transcend the personal and get them to open up to me a little bit and be a little bit more human in a way. There’s a lot of energy and electricity at these events, and I’m trying to diffuse that a bit.”
Look at the faces and into their eyes, in the portraits of the boys with freckles on their noses and girls in pigtails finished in bows. Or his shots of overlooked details — a cowboy checking the bottom of his horse’s hoof, mud-caked boot heels nearly obscured by the wrinkles of Wrangler jeans, fringe on a cowboy’s chaps caught mid-flutter as he walks up the arena stairs. Beyond the cinematic feel of his photographs — the crispness and stillness of the images themselves — there is a sureness.
“I want to capture these people on film in a genuine way,” Berlin says. “I want to see through and into who they are. How they dress is a big part of their identity. They’re not dressing up for a performance. They’re dressing up for their life. This is who they are.”