“The Rodeo and the West,” Essay by Michael Kimmel
The Rodeo and the West
The Photographs of Donald Woodman
Michael Kimmel, Author of Manhood in America: A Cultural History
The idea of the west has always been the heart of the American experience. It’s a simple equation: frontier plus freedom equaled hope, possibility, optimistic exuberance. It’s the place where failed easterners could reinvent themselves, start over. It’s the land of the do-over. And since the end of the 19th century, that idea has been captured by the rodeo, a showcase of the skills and thrills necessary to tame the wilderness, stake one’s claim, and finally succeed.
From its origins, that ideal has also been a powerfully masculine one. The west is a world of men, a world where they test themselves against the forces of nature and tame it. And the rodeo is the spectacle of that masculinity, a world of men’s men, of men among men.
And it’s also been something of a fraud. The rodeo was the hyper masculinity of the western cowboy rendered as spectacle for eastern “dudes” (hence the origin of the dude ranch) with about as much authenticity as professional wrestling today.
You see, by the time the rodeo was formally created, by such showman as P. T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody, the frontier had just about disappeared. The rodeo cowboy arrived just as his real-life prototype had been reduced to a soggy, lonely proletarian, “less a knight errant and more a hired man on horseback,” as Wallace Stegner put it. The first rodeo was held in Pecos, Texas in 1883; five years later, folks in Prescott, Arizona actually paid an admission fee to see those cowpokes poke those cows.
Within a few years, rodeos were highly disciplined, rules-bound affairs, an “annual resurrection of the west as it was, for the edification of the west as it is” proclaimed a booster for Cheyenne, Wyoming’s “Frontier Days.” A magazine writer explained in 1909:
Civilization is pushing everything before it: thriving cities and well kept farms are taking the place of the cattle upon a thousand hills. But the pioneer still clings with a pathetic tenacity to the old customs a pathetic but vigorous desire to prove that strong arms and courageous hearts still existed on the range.
What we lose in reality, goes the Freudian truism, we recreate in fantasy.
As fantasies, rodeos became big business, glamorous displays of hardy untrammeled masculinity. And they became professionalized, touring the south and west, harking back to the turn of the century, honing increasingly anachronistic skills while hawking the latest trinkets and souvenirs. Whatever might have been left of that virtuous virility the rodeo had initially celebrated had melted into consumerist stew except at the local level, among everyday folk who returned the rodeo to its original purpose – the preservation and celebration of those masculine skills, testing one’s mettle against the forces of nature. While the large-scale national rodeo is the domain of rhinestone cowboys, at local rodeos people still got dirty.
One of the most startling qualities of Donald Woodman’s photographs in The Rodeo and the West is the raw immediacy of the images. They’re blurry, off-center, and frenetic. Sometimes, he feels too far away for the stylized close-up of the professional rodeo portrait of those blow-dried buckaroos. He’s a spectator as we are, a little distant. Yet at other times, he’s right in the ring, and one can almost feel him jerk the camera away as he snaps the shutter, a split-second before the horse or bull got too dangerously close. As he’s there, so are we − dirt flies up in the air, and we wince lest it hit us. We can hear the galloping hooves. As a viewer more than once I started to shout out to the rider to pull up to keep from falling.
To somehow capture the authenticity of this local rodeo, Woodman stripped down his equipment, refitting a turn of the century Brownie camera, which enabled him to reveal to modern eyes what rodeo must have been like to real people in real life. Of course, reality is not the same as pretty. It’s unsentimental, unromanticized, entirely lacking in glamour. In that sense, the rodeo represents the other side of the American dream – not the one that flamboyantly triumphs over nature, but the one that fails, the one that starts over, that falls off their horse, picks themselves up, and does it again.