The Cowboy Way
Learning the Ropes
How a photographer's search for horses to photograph led him to the rough and tumble world of NMSU's "rodeo school."
Story and Photos by Mel Stone
Editor's note: A recent transplant to southern New Mexico, photographer Mel Stone operates the Mesquite Art Gallery in downtown Las Cruces and is a Downtown Farmers Market vendor. What began as a simple outing to photograph horses in the NMSU area evolved into a series, "Rodeo School," documenting the university rodeo team practices and the objects, landscape and people surrounding them. Earlier this year, some of those photographs were featured in a show and accompanying gallery talk at the Branigan Cultural Center in Las Cruces. The photographs will also be featured this month at his Mesquite Art Gallery. Here, Stone shares a selection of his "Rodeo School" images and talks about his photographic work and the way that images begin to form narratives, stories that bring the viewer on a journey.
I was born in Minnesota, graduated from Thief River Falls, Minn., high school, earned a BA in chemistry at St. Olaf College and found out I was not a very good chemist. I earned a master's in economics and mathematics and then a PhD in economics. I thought about becoming a journalist and eventually became a one-man band in TV news — writer, shooter, editor, all of it. I got a lot of practice shooting pictures, albeit video.
Mel Stone's Mesquite Art Gallery is at 340 N. Mesquite St. in Las Cruces, (575) 640-3502, www.mesquiteartgallery.com. Hours are Thursday and Friday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and Saturday 2-5 p.m.
As I slid into retirement, I bought my first digital still camera and joined an art co-op. I did well enough in the co-op to decide to have a combined home and art gallery when I moved to Las Cruces in 2010.
Some photographers love shooting cats or dogs or people. I've always loved photographing horses. But I haven't always had luck finding good locations or good horses to photograph. Perhaps even worse, I haven't always known a good horse photograph when I had one.
A few months after getting my first digital camera, I took this picture ("Front Range") somewhere between Santa Fe and Pueblo, Colo. Driving north on I-25, I saw the snowcapped mountains to the west and thought, "Somewhere there might be a photograph."
Then I saw a herd of horses off to the west: "Damn, they're on the wrong side of the Interstate," I thought.
A few miles down the Interstate, I said, "The hell with it!" and drove through the ditch and back to the horses. After a few shots, I made this one — and it just sat on my hard drive.
Some time later I had my first one-man show since turning digital and just about had the exhibit filled-out but needed one more image. "I like the barbed-wire shot, but doubt if anybody else will," I thought. So I printed, matted, framed and hung it.
The night of the opening reception, "Front Range" was the first piece to sell — and it continues to sell.
It's scary how close I came to not showing that piece.
Another time, I was driving back from a TV news shoot, when I saw a paddock with some horses. I stopped and made a few photographs, but nothing was "making the grade." Then two horses came together and I made this shot ("Horse Play").
It, too, languished on my hard drive. By this time I had joined an art co-op and somehow our advertising person got her hands on this image and it appeared in an ad. The phone started to ring: "Is that photograph still available?" "Damn, I better print it." And it's still a good seller.
Once I moved to Las Cruces, I continued my search for horses to photograph.
About 24 miles north of Las Cruces on Valley Drive, I discovered a place that raised quarter horses. I got to meet the owners, too.
But the last time I headed out there, the water tank and all the horses were gone — probably due to the drought and the high price of hay.
I took some other photos over in Mesilla Park at a horse-rescue farm. I just happened to meet the owner on a garden tour and she said, "Come over and photograph anytime you want."
Then I heard that NMSU had a couple of places were you could find a lot of horses. First I tried the equestrian barns, but there were too many fences and no good access to the horses; the folks from NMSU were worried about my safety and liability.
For more about NMSU's rodeo team, see aces.nmsu.edu/rodeo. The College National Finals Rodeo will be June 15-21 in Casper, Wyo.
So it was out to near "A" Mountain where the NMSU rodeo team practices. Fortunately, I had the good sense to think about photographing the rodeo team practicing, and they gave me great access.
As I made more pictures, I began to see a narrative — beginning, middle and end — and I submitted a proposal to the Branigan Cultural Center. Then I had last fall and this spring to make more pictures at practice.
Many of the images in my original proposal did not make it into the exhibit. In "Boot Flying," for example, this guy had his ankle broken after the bronc stepped on him. I learned that "rodeo is one of the most dangerous organized spectator sports in the world."
Given the narrative I saw emerge, I asked the Branigan to hang the photographs in a more or less specific order. I saw "These Boots" as a nice beginning shot — and very few people see the world from this low perspective.
I got in the habit of showing up early and on odd days. Only once did I see this towed, mechanical bronc being used ("You Call That a Bronc?").
Another day, I saw this lady roping a towed iron calf. By showing the bronc being towed I felt I could use a closer shot of the iron-calf roping and people would deduce it, too, was being towed.
Early another day, I saw a lady doing ground work in goat-tying. I didn't like any of those shots, but then she began practice dismounts from her horse ("Dismount Perfection").
I think shots like this ("Looking On") help add a third dimension to a two-dimensional medium. If we'd had a vote for "people's choice" the night of the reception at the Branigan, this one might have won. People seemed to especially like that little braid near the edge.
This is not the side you normally dismount from ("Roper's Dismount"), so I asked a roper about it. This is the best way for them to dismount.
This one ("Season's Over") was shot at NMSU's last rodeo of the season in 2013. Sunday's rodeo began at high noon, when the light is just awful, so I decided to show up later in the day. I got there after the rodeo was finished, but wandered the grounds. I saw this guy on crutches and asked if I could take some photographs. They were all forgettable, so I wandered some more and came back to him and hung around for a time and made this picture.
Speaking of light and time of day to photograph brings me to this: Photography, taken apart, is "photo," which means light, and "graph," which means to write, so photography is "writing with light."
Light is everything! And generally speaking it's nicest early in the day, around sunrise, and late in the day, around sunset. Fortunately, the NMSU team practiced late in the day.
If you learn to see the light and find it hitting interesting subjects, about all that's left is to compose well.
Some photography teachers admonish their students to get it right in the camera and never crop in post-production. I like to get as much as possible perfect in the camera, but I will crop in post-production — especially with a fast-moving event like rodeo.
A photographer-teacher, Rick Sammon, doesn't understand the "don't crop" attitude. He says post-production is your last chance to get the composition right, and has coined the word "crop-osition" (cropping and composition).
I guess my favorites among these "Rodeo School" pictures are when the light and the "crop-position" come together just right.
The Southwest Horseman's Association will sponsor the annual Wild, Wild West Pro Rodeo in Silver City, June 4-6. This annual PRCA Rodeo features bull riding, fast riding and roping and nightly mutton bustin' by the youngest cowpokes. Events are held at the Southwest Horseman's Park, off Hwy. 180 and Caballero Road.
Gates open at 6 p.m., SHA Gymkhana demonstration at 7 p.m., Mutton Bustin' at 7:30 p.m., and the PRCA Rodeo performance gets underway at 8 p.m.
Tickets are $15 in advance and $18 at the gate. Available at: Circle Heart Western Wear (Silver City), First New Mexico Bank (Silver City), Lawley Dodge (Silver City), Circle S Western Emporium (Deming) and Trail Town Chevron (Lordsburg). For more information, see silvercityprorodeo.com.