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A visual celebration of Black rodeo culture

Ivan McClellan travelled across American for ten years to help reclaim the image of the cowboy

‘Handoff, Okmulgee, Oklahoma’ from Eight Seconds: Black Rodeo Culture by Ivan McClellan

“It was like going to Oz,” says documentary photographer Ivan McClellan, describing his first visit to the USA’s longest-running Black rodeo.

“Here was all this colour and energy. There was a backyard barbecue atmosphere … It felt like home.”

Brought up in urban Kansas, McClellan hadn’t experienced anything like the celebration of cowboy culture served up by the Roy LeBlanc Okmulgee Invitational in Oklahoma. As a child he had visited live rodeos, watched the TV series Bonanza and immersed himself in films starring Clint Eastwood and John Wayne. Cowboy culture, though, had always been portrayed by white people.

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‘Bull riders, Rosenberg, Texas’ from Eight Seconds: Black Rodeo Culture by Ivan McClellan

His visit to the Black rodeo at the invitation of director and producer Charles Perry changed that. The event, which Perry was filming for the documentary The Black Cowboy: History You Cannot Hide, sparked a decade-long project that was to take McClellan across America. The result is his first photobook, Eight Seconds: Black Rodeo Culture.

The experience changed McClellan’s life. He writes of the Black cowboy, “You are not just a way of life but a symbol of resil­ience, courage, and determination. For centuries, you have braved the harsh conditions of the open range, tamed wild horses and herded cattle across vast stretches of land. You have faced the unpredictable forces of nature and humankind and embraced a changing world, all while never losing your spirit.”

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‘Jadayia Kursh, Okmulgee, Oklahoma’; ‘Patrick Liddell, Las Vegas, Nevada’ from Eight Seconds: Black Rodeo Culture by Ivan McClellan

Charles Sampson, a former champion bullrider, says McClellan’s images are key to the rebirth of Black cowboy culture.

“This history was all but forgotten,” writes Sampson in a forward to the book. “Legendary western figures like Bass Reeves, Bill Pickett, Stagecoach Mary and Nat Love have been left out of films and history books. Every year there are fewer Black cowboys in America as the population ages, and young Black people believe the western lifestyle isn’t for them.

“I was the first and the most recent Black person to win the bull riding championship at the National Finals Rodeo. Through Ivan’s work elevating the stories of Black cowboys, I hope the next generation of great rodeo athletes are inspired to put on chaps and accomplish greatness. It doesn’t matter if they live on a ranch or the projects.”

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‘Marland Burke, Brandon Alexander, James Pickens Jr, Los Angeles, California’; ‘Rodney and Riley, McCalla, Alabama’ from Eight Seconds: Black Rodeo Culture by Ivan McClellan

All images by Ivan McClellan. Eight Seconds: Black Rodeo Culture
is published by Damiani, £40, on 4 April 2024.

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