Upcoming James exhibit spotlights gay rodeo photography

It was 1988 when Seattle-born photographer Blake Little attended his first gay rodeo. “The sport, camaraderie, and atmosphere of this first rodeo experience transformed me,” he said. “I was completely drawn to it and I had to be a part of it. I wanted to be a cowboy.”

And so he did, learning the craft and competing – in 1990, Little was named Bull Riding Champion of the Year at the International Gay Rodeo Association finals.

At the same time, his eye for light, contrast and drama was never idle, and Little created iconic portraiture and action shots of the people he met and the places he visited.

Forty-one of Little’s black and white images are included in Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo, opening Sept. 5 at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art. The photos were made at events from Oklahoma to California. The gay rodeo circuit began as a series of fundraisers for the Western LGBT community.

“This exhibit also explores the diverse and complex natures of individual and community identity in the West,” ExhibitsUSA curator Johanna Blume explained. “Many of the people in these photos were LGBT men and women from rural backgrounds, and the gay rodeo circuit gave them a place where they could embrace and celebrate their full identities.”

According to the artist, the notion of “identity” was never far from his thoughts. “These photographs represent an amazing, magical time in my life,” Little said. “Back then, I questioned if I was a ‘real’ cowboy because in the back of my mind I always felt like an observer—and photography was my first passion. But my unique situation allowed me to document the growing sport of gay rodeo from the inside, along with the thrills and personal challenges of fulfilling my cowboy dreams.”

James Museum curator Emily Kapes, in a press release, said the photos celebrate diversity in the West. “With so many different perspectives within the Western experience, we see this exhibition as an opportunity to feature the gay community, create dialogue, and inform museum visitors on these little-known competitions.

“The James Museum strives to be a welcoming and inspiring space for all and to amplify voices that are not often at the forefront of popular culture and mainstream western art.”

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Keara McGraw