The timing couldn’t be better. As the Indiana House of Representatives passed HJR-3 to have its life-or-death sentence finalized by the Senate, the Eiteljorg Museum is making sure that those facing the harsh side of that bill have a visible presence in its halls. In an effort to expand its acceptance of Western culture’s diversity, the Eiteljorg recently opened its doors to photographer Blake Little and his exhibition, Photographs of the Gay Rodeo.
The artist is not bound to the American West, having shot celebrities ranging from Julianne Moore to Jane Fonda, Maya Rudolph to Henry Cavill, for a range of projects. Even so, he photographed the International Gay Rodeo from the late 1980s to the early ’90s, captured snapshots of life on the circuit. The exhibition is filled with portraits and documentations of rodeos and their competitors, both cowboys and cowgirls, those who sought refuge to be themselves in an overtly conservative culture. As Little has it, the photos are a testament to the small difference between LGBT and straight communities, how labels can sometimes be the sole difference we put upon ourselves.
The photographs show a true intimacy as well. Little not only documented the rodeo but was also a participant, and in 1990, he was named the bull-riding champion by the International Gay Rodeo Association. It is clear that those caught in his lens were not only fellow participants. They had a stronger affinity for him, and some were even friends. One portrait depicts a friend of his who attended Little’s first rodeo with him; that man would die due to HIV/AIDS a year after the picture was taken.
Here, Little shares with IM his thoughts on the exhibition and his experiences in photographing gay rodeos:
How did you first get involved with the Gay Rodeo, and what attracted you to it?
In ‘88, there was an L.A. Rodeo going on, and I had never been to a rodeo before. One of my best friends and I decided to check it out. I had always loved Western culture and watched Western TV shows as a kid, but I grew up in Seattle. It was a real popular time for Western culture. I like to call it the Garth Brooks Era. He sold millions of records, and line dancing clubs were the top clubs for several years in major cities. We went to the first rodeo and were hooked on the whole environment. I almost went to every gay rodeo for the next year. By the the third rodeo, I started doing camp events, and by the fifth rodeo, I did steer riding. By the sixth event, I was riding the bull.
When did you decide to begin documenting the rodeos?
As a photographer, I photograph what I’m interested in, so it was natural. It also became something to do. I thought, “Well, I’m here, so I’m going to take pictures.” The way I approach subjects in life now, after publishing books and shows, is more structured and serious. At the time, because I was at a younger age, it was less structured and I was just taking pictures all the time, but it was a part of my experience at the rodeos.
How were you received by the rodeo community?
The people in the gay rodeo, including the top competitors, were all really friendly, open, and helpful. One of my favorite things I always remember, and the most positive thing about the whole experience, is the comradery. Obviously you are competing against each other; it a competitive and danger sport in a lot of ways, but at the same time, people are always helpful. During my first bull ride, there were competitors helping me ride.
Do you feel your photographs display the comradery?
Only a couple. This photograph [Behind the Chutes, Los Angeles, California 1989], you can see a man getting mentally prepared to ride. Some guys are helping a rider in the chutes to get ready to ride the bull. There are guys laughing and talking amongst one another. Most of my pictures, however, tend to be more serious. I like to get into the person’s head and get them to connect with the camera and connect with me, so they are revealing something about themselves. To capture the comradery, that’s something I would do in a documentary way, as opposed to a portrait.
I think you have to take them at face value. If my pictures have a message, it’s an organic message. It’s not like I set out to improve rights for LGBT people. Sometimes that is the result of what I do because it shows all these cowboys and cowgirls as cowboys and cowgirls, and that’s the message, that we’re just like everybody else. In all my photographs, in the books that I’ve published (Manifest and A Company of Men), I just set out to try to bring honesty, directness, and integrity to my photographs. I had a feeling about what I wanted to project with these photographs, and the result was that.
Do you hope the gallery has an outside impact on the Indianapolis community and even the state?
Sure. Western culture is a more conservative culture, and these images showing LGBT cowboys and cowgirls like anyone else just adds to that. I think the people who are against LGBT rights don’t really know those on the other side of the issue. They need to know more gay people, and meet more gay people, and understand the other side. But I don’t think of myself as a political photographer.
This is your first museum gallery showing. Why did you choose this exhibit and the Eiteljorg?
Gregory Hinton, a writer, screenwriter and now historian, who has taken it upon himself to document the LGBT community in Western culture, from contemporary culture back to pre-European influence, started a program called Out West and has done several programs on this topic. He recently did a program here [at the Eiteljorg], called “Two Spirits,” about Indian people who have male and female qualities, that was highly regarded in Indian culture. He called me and said he remembered my rodeo pictures from the late ’80s to early ’90s. All of these photos were in a filing cabinet, and I hadn’t looked at them for about 20 years. He took the photographs around to different museums and came to the Eiteljorg with my program. The curators at the Eiteljorg decided to take on my show.
As an audience, are there any photographs to which we should pay particular attention?
I would like for you to see them as a complete body of work. In terms of the anti-marriage initiative, there is a portrait of two men, a Latino and a Caucasian, who just got married last year and have been together for the past 20 years. I also have pictures that I identify with for personal reasons, but I think they are all great photographs and should be looked at as a whole.
Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo. Now through July 13. Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington St., 317-636-9378. eiteljorg.org. For more information about the photographer and his work: blakelittle.com