The North American cowboy doesn’t encompass just one custom or image but includes a whole range of traditions and cultures.
That’s the photogenic point of a new exhibition of roughly 50 photographs at Booth Western Art Museum. Showcasing the many variations on the cowboy theme, it traces the legacy of the first cowboys through many expressions of the Western tradition, highlighting Mexican charros, Indian relay races and rodeos, Hawaiian paniolos, as well as Black rodeos and African American cowboys.
“The history of the North American cowboy can be traced back to the early Spanish horsemen, the vaqueros, who brought their craft and traditions to the Americas in 1687,” says Booth curator of photography Dr. Samuel Gerace III. “Since then, cowboy culture can be found from the East to the West Coast of the United States — and even in Hawaii. This exhibition is a celebration of these diverse descendants, spanning rodeos to ranching and those in between.”
Museum executive director Seth Hopkins knew of a number of talented photographers who were delving into “the cowboy lifestyle, the cowboy mystique, the cowboy way — all different types of people who wound up being cowboys and who might have different lingo and different dress but were essentially all doing the same job but doing it differently.” The idea for an exhibition that would capture those varied manifestations through the lenses of multiple photographers became Vaquero Legacies & Diverse Descendants.
“The show features a great cross-section of America,” Hopkins says, and brings together color and black-and-white images from contemporary photographers such as Richard DuCree, Jay Dusard, Collin Erie, Antonio Gómez, Anouk Krantz, Nadine Levin, Barbara Van Cleve, Travis Gillett, Ivan McClellan, Julia Cumes, Roseanna Sales, Christopher Pugmire with filmmaker Doug Hancock, and others.
Click on the slideshow for more images
Hopkins is especially drawn to the work of Krantz: “She’s from France and comes to it as a real outsider, with the romantic ideas of a European thinking of the cowboy ideal. Then after being exposed to the real thing, she found that it wasn’t what she thought it was. The authentic blue-collar American — patriotic with all these ideals that a cynical city person in Europe thought was a cliché — is real or more real than anything that could ever have been in her mind.”
For Gerace, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. “The photographers in the exhibition each document the breadth of cowboy culture in their own special way,” he says. “To me what is striking about the artists, and indeed the exhibition, is their unique styles and subjects. Anouk Krantz transforms the Western sky into a huge expanse through the use of stark contrast. Collin Erie documents the Compton Cowboys, blending aspects of documentary and editorial photography to celebrate this group of African Americans as they work to educate and inspire future generations. Richard DuCree uses color and black-and-white photography to highlight the blend of African, African American, and Western traditions among riders in Black rodeos.”
There’s also the work of Antonio Gómez, a photography professor at College of Southern Nevada, whose crisp black and whites of the charrería, a Mexican version of rodeo, document participants and spectators, charros’ traditional clothing, and the vibrant atmosphere of the events. “The ways in which long-lived traditions are passed on from generation to generation is central to Gómez’s series,” Gerace says. “His work shows the struggle of many Mexican immigrants who make it their mission to pass on equestrian precision and human nobility to the next generation.”
When you see all of the diverse images together in one exhibition, Gerace says, “a more holistic picture of the American cowboy begins to emerge.”
Vaquero Legacies & Diverse Descendants will be on view February 13 – July 11 at Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia.
Photography: Images courtesy and copyright the artists
From our February/March 2021 issue.