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Behind the Scenes at the Rodeo

 Photo essay and Q&A with photographer Carol Sternkopf

What first inspired you to photograph rodeos?

I grew up in rural southern Wisconsin where I spent a lot of my childhood attending small-town “bratwurst” festivals, waiting for the circus train to come through town once a year, choreographing waterski and “zip-sled” shows off our dock, and dressing up our family pets for impromptu photo shoots. I used my parents Polaroid camera to document these events and held photography shows inside our screen porch. You needed a hand-drawn magic-marker ticket to get in. So, an early fascination with local culture and stylized events was pretty well established by the time I was twelve.

I moved to Bend in my late 30s, in spring. I started combing through the cultural events section of the newspaper every week, and the local rodeos really caught my attention. Photographing this slice of western Americana was my way of “re-rooting” and connecting to a new community.

Why do you focus on behind-the-scenes and not the rodeo ring?

When I first attended a pro rodeo (ticket-in-hand!) I was very caught up with the excitement in the stands. It’s such a people-watcher’s paradise. There is amazing energy at a rodeo and it’s a visceral experience sitting in the stands. Each performance seemed impeccably choreographed and executed, and then the riders and horses quickly disappear behind the huge gate at the far corner of the ring. Or the bulls obediently—most of the time—run back in the chute after being corralled by cowboys and ranch dogs. I just really wanted a closer look at what was “behind the curtain,” so to say. A Wizard of Oz obsession, perhaps.

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Did you grow up with the rodeo?

I did not. But as I said, I did grow up rural. Our driveway was lined by two dairy farms, which were standard fare in southern Wisconsin. We “toyed” with bulls behind low barbed wire fences, and irresponsibly took other people’s horses out for a ride occasionally. We played in dirt and barns, and yelled at our dogs not to chase foxes in fields. We had a lot of physical freedom. A bit of the 4-H life that kids grow up with here in Central Oregon was built into my childhood as well. I relate to the smells, the bit of danger, and the sheer beauty of it all.

Do you know the words to “The Star Spangled Banner” yet?

I wish I did! I think I do every time and then I quickly realize I’m just lip-syncing—because I’m starting to tear up. That quiet opening-of-ceremony really moves me. In the staging area, rodeo competitors and support team members take their hats off and place them on their chests. Even the horses are completely still. I find that kind of ritual beautiful on a lot of levels. I try to photograph as quietly as I can during that, but the shots seem very worth it. I feel I honor it all by documenting, as that’s what I do.

How do you stay incognito around all the cowboys and cowgirls?

I don’t think I am, unless I am perceived as one of the clowns. Which, I might be! There are a lot of photographers behind the scenes and we are fairly welcome if we manage to stay out of the way. The cowgirls and cowboys behind that gate have a lot to think about constantly, including enormous animals to keep under control in a tight area that is packed with excitement and energy. There are a lot of safety concerns, like behind the bull chutes, where no one but the bull riders are allowed. I love that area, too, image-making-wise, so I pull out a longer lens to do it. I’m very respectful and I get permission to be doing what I am doing—I count my blessings just to be able to be there.

What’s your favorite Oregon rodeo?

That’s a hard one as I have not been to so many, because there are so many. I have stuck to local rodeos here in Deschutes and Jefferson County. I can’t really say I have a favorite—they are all so unique. Each time I shoot one, I walk away saying, “That was my favorite!”

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Do you own cowboy boots?

I have a pair that kind of qualify. I could easily get hired to clean stalls with them. I think it’s a matter of accumulating enough horse excrement in all the treading that makes a person own “real” cowboy boots. I’m not sure I’m quite there yet. But soon.

Why so many shots of people’s backs?

After years of editing thousands of images, I began noticing a pattern—the backs of cowboy hats. I’m usually not this slow to observe something this obvious in my own work. My vantage point has really become that of the rodeo participants, looking out into the ring and into stands as the adrenaline builds in the staging area. I realized the title of the series has to be “Behind the Chutes.”

What is your favorite rodeo tradition?

If I had to choose, I think it’s the beginning pageantry. The highly choreographed and fairly dangerous-looking routine that kicks off the rodeo, with each of the regional rodeo queens representing their counties. They are all such stellar athletes and so beautiful on their decorated horses. The colors and textures of this opening scene are breathtaking—a photographer’s dream.

What shot are you hoping to get this year?

I am hoping to get to the peewee rodeo this year. I think it’s in Madras. I’m curious how my images will be more miniature. The sheer cuteness of that is calling to me in my dreams. Plus, those miniature cowboy and cowgirl boots in so many great colors—come on!

Tell us your best rodeo story.

I was photographing the tight staging area where the fabulous “Pepsi Girls” were rehearsing. They were riding fast in circles with those enormous and heavy flags they carry. I became cornered in one spot until the drill finished. Lots of dust kicking up, which of course I love for the images, but I was getting a little nervous being so close to the horses. A rodeo official next to me noticed my nervous posture and said, “Sweetie, there’s only one thing you need to know about horses and that is, you just have to treat them like they are three year olds—that’s all there is to it!’.” I was relieved at first until I realized I personally had no idea what that meant. In my mind that might mean I buy them ice cream after swimming, and let them watch an hour of Sponge Bob if they are good!

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