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Portland photographer focuses on Black cowboy culture

Photographer Ivan McClellan went to his first rodeo grudgingly. He grew up in Kansas City and lived in New York before moving to Portland. McClellan is a city boy. And he’s Black. He didn’t think there was anything for him at a rodeo. Now, McClellan has a new exhibit of his photos of Black cowboys at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Dave Miller: In 2015, the Portland based photographer and designer Ivan McClellan went to an all black rodeo in Oklahoma. He was instantly hooked. That first trip sparked a project that is still going on. It’s taken him all over the country, Utah and Arizona, North Carolina and Texas, even Philadelphia. In his photographs and interviews, he is reframing a western mythology that’s been whitewashed for more than a century. His work is on display right now at the Buffalo Bill center of the west, a museum in Wyoming. You can also see his work online. I talked to McClellan yesterday, and I asked him to describe what he saw when he went to that very first rodeo in Oklahoma six years ago.

Ivan McClellan: You know, I had no idea what to expect. I was invited by a friend of mine. His filmmaker and he [were] doing a documentary about black cowboys and he was just like, come with me, you know? Because I was kind of like, how can you do an entire documentary about that? There’s got to be a handful of people and he’s like, you don’t know what you’re talking about. He was like, come with me.

I got there, I got out of the car, it was 105 degree day outside and it was this lawn in front of this rodeo arena and there were hundreds of glistening white trailers just just roasting out in the sun. There were horses sitting in the shade of the trailers. Out of the trailers, there was blaring gospel music, there was blaring R&B. Beyonce was coming out of the trailers, there were people playing dominoes, there were people playing spades and I saw cowboys walking along with their horses with no shirt on basketball shorts, earrings, and braids. I saw female barrel racers that had long acrylic nails and bedazzled shirts and bedazzled hats and full faces of makeup.

They were walking with these muscular quarter horses that they were gonna rip up the arena and the dirt going 40 miles an hour around these barrels. I saw old men in Stetsons and white button downs that were so starched that their arms crunched when they moved them, and they had moustaches and they had pinky rings. I was there in just a crumpled up short sleeve shirt and khakis, and I had on wing tips. I looked completely out of place, but I felt so comfortable because all of this reminded me of home. All of this reminded me of growing up in Kansas City. This reminded me of growing up in the church. So it was like Black culture combined with Western culture in a way that I never, never could have imagined existed.

Dave Miller: What did you know, I mean? As you said, you said to your friend, how can you even make a movie about this? Because there must be only a handful and he said, you have no idea. But did you know anything about what you’re getting yourself into?

Ivan McClellan: Not at all. You know, my perception of Black cowboys was set by Blazing Saddles, where it was one black sheriff who wanders into town and it’s a comedy of errors. Or, there was a black cowboy on Pee Wee’s Playhouse called cowboy Curtis that Laurence Fishburne played and you know, I just kind of thought of the the Black cowboy is kind of a joke or a sidekick, but not anything that actually existed. So, this was completely new to me to see thousands of Black cowboys who are living a completely authentic life. This is how they live day to day. This wasn’t for show. This wasn’t a movie. This was real life.

Dave Miller: You’ve written that you ended up meeting somebody named Robert Crif there who, like you, was wearing a Kansas City Royals baseball cap, and the two of you got to talking. What did you hear from him?

Ivan McClellan: So, Robert was... I can’t tell you how old he is. He’s somewhere between 40 and 100, a leather face and he’s got these hard hands. He shook my hand and I immediately just thought mine were going to start bleeding because my work [was] in design, and my hands are like dragon fly wings they’re so soft, and he’s got these rough working-man hands. And yeah, we were both wearing Kansas City Royals hats.

I said, where are you from? He said, I’m from Kansas City. I said, I’m from Kansas City, too. He said, where in Kansas City? I said, I grew up on 57th and Georgia. He said, I grew up on 58th and Georgia, which is the other side of a five acre field that was behind my house. There was a cowboy growing up on the other side of my house and I never met him. I never saw [him]. It sort of transformed my ideas of home from being a place of poverty and violence, to being a place of ownership and cowboys, freedom and independence, and all of the things that come along with that icon.

In fact, he told me that half of the people that were down there at this rodeo in Oklahoma drove down from Kansas City, Kansas. So, I discovered that there was this thriving culture right under my nose the whole time I was growing up.

Dave Miller: How do you explain that? And you had no idea it existed? I mean, it was almost literally in your backyard. How was it that you weren’t aware of it? That people hadn’t made you aware of it?

Ivan McClellan: You know, now that I think about it in retrospect, I knew kids in school who were Black kids, and their dad had a cow. I was like, oh yeah, that’s just Mr. Wills. He’s got a cow. He’s got chickens. I would see Black guys riding horses from time to time, but I was like, oh that’s just a Black guy riding a horse. I never really made the connection [that] those were cowboys because I never thought that cowboys were white. So part of it was that it was just sort of a disconnect, of me living this kind of urban/rural culture at the same time, and not being able to kind of call the people around me cowboys.

The other part was that my family grew up rural. They were just a few generations outside of slavery when they moved to Kansas City. My grandma grew up around farming. She grew up around animals. They would slaughter pigs and things like that. We were taught that those things were rural. And those things that were country were things that were poor, and we should avoid them. It was not anything that we should take interest in. We should be interested in the things that are slick and the things that are in the city, because those are things that are going to lead to success. Everything that’s based in farming is just poverty, and something that came out of slavery. So, there was a bit of shame about that part of our upbringing, and I think that’s why I ignored it for so long.

Dave Miller: Did you see anything like shame on display when you went to that very first rodeo in Oklahoma? And when you started looking at the pictures you’ve made?

Ivan McClellan: Not a bit. Not a bit. All I saw was just absolute pride and absolute thriving in the moments that they were living in. I asked a bull rider, is the first rodeo that [he] had gone to. I didn’t realize how ridiculous a question it was. I asked him how he got into bull riding, and he just kind of stared at me. It was like, I don’t know, you know? I asked somebody else, how did you get into calf roping? And they really didn’t have a good answer for me. I would ask people over and over again how they got into it, and I came to realize that it’s not something that they got into. It was something that they were born into. It was something that their parents did and their parents did, and it’s something that they’ve done for generations. Something that was just an extension of their culture, and something that was an extension of their lifestyle.

Dave Miller: It’s interesting, because until you explain that, I didn’t know what wasn’t good about that question. What’s an example of what I could ask you where the answer would be the same where you’d sort of be flummoxed because it was just the air you breathed.

Ivan McClellan: I don’t know. They are just things about American culture. It would be like, how did you get into eating bread?

Dave Miller: So for the people you’re talking to, it’s basically that they were born into the world of rodeo or horses? And it was what they knew.

Ivan McClellan: Yeah, exactly. A lot of them started riding horses when they were six months old, one year old. So their relationship with horses... I mean, a better question than that I found as an introductory question is, tell me about your first horse. They’ll light up immediately and go back to these positive stories of them riding a horse and training that horse, the bond and connection they got with that animal, and that’s what really locked in this lifestyle for them. But for most of these rodeo competitors... there are some who got into it later in life. But for the most part, it was just their family tradition and just what everybody around them did.

Dave Miller: So what was it about what you saw there, or experienced, or what you heard from people in that very first trip that made you want to do much more? It could have been just, at one time, almost like a couple days vacation and then back to the grind, back to your day jobs in Portland. Instead, this has turned into a 66+ year project. What was it that hooked you?

Ivan McClellan: For one thing, in Portland, working at a digital agency where there were 115 employees and I was the only Black one. I was just living a lifestyle here that was a bit isolated, and to go to this sort of mecca of Black culture... they sang the national anthem, but they’re also singing that African American national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. They sang it with so much sincerity and so much fervor that I actually heard those words for the first time.

To be around folks that were completely open and willing to share their story, and where I didn’t feel like an other. I didn’t feel like I didn’t belong. I felt completely like I like merged into it. I started, over time, dressing the part and showing up to these rodeos in denim and boots and a hat, and there was no separation between me and the competitors. I could go wherever I wanted, because people just assume that I belong there. And that was something that I really couldn’t do so much in Portland.

So, it was the ability to blend and be anonymous, and to be around this thriving culture. That was one of the major motivations that kept me going back. The other thing was that the photos that I took there were so vibrant. It was like I went to Oz and came back and had proof that I had been there. There was so much color, so much vibrancy, so much energy that I just had to keep going back and get more of this content... getting closer to people until I went beyond going to rodeos and started going to people’s homes and started going to their ranches, traveling along with them and their trucks and getting closer to people, really telling their like true stories. It’s almost like an addiction. It’s just so fulfilling and such a great energy transfer that I have to go back.

Dave Miller: Six years in, what stories do you find that you’re most drawn to right now? What kinds of stories?

Ivan McClellan: This year, I’ve focused a lot on farming. That was something that… I had mostly focused on rodeo competitors and I realized, wow, there’s this whole segment of cowboy culture that’s sort of being ignored. That’s left out of my story. So I started talking to farmers in what’s called... I’ve talked to some farmers in Oregon, talk to some folks in Bend and have been out and seen big operations out there.

A lot of my work has led me to Georgia and North Carolina, and what’s called the Black Belt, which is a name of the fertile soil that is in this band from Texas all the way up to North Carolina. But it’s also the name of the area were cotton and a lot of crops during slavery were grown. But they still call it the Black Belt, and you’ll find more Black farmers there than anywhere else in America. I’ve been to cotton farms that are owned by Black men and and stood by their ancestor’s graves who were the first people out of slavery that owned the land and four generations later they’re really savvy on social media. They have partnerships with big brands and they own their own cotton gin where they’re able to process the cotton and sell cloth.

I just sat with a farmer in Georgia and planted cucumbers for four hours. I’ve really dove into that headlong because it feels like they’re really closer to the ancestral kind of story that’s tied to this.

Dave Miller: Going back to some of the work you’ve done in cities, one of the things that surprised me was a woman who has been riding horses and teaching people how to ride horses in Philadelphia for a while. Can you introduce us to her?

Ivan McClellan: Yeah, that’s Erin Brown, and she’s a member of the Fletcher Street Stables. They just did a documentary... a movie... a drama/film on Netflix about them called Concrete Cowboy [with] Idris Elba. I went and visited the real stables and she’s really fascinating. She got involved with that group when she was six. Her dad was a welder, and a lot of the guys would come there with their trailers and would get their trailers fixed by him. One day he took her to visit the stables and she just got hooked. She got obsessed with horses and wanted to go back every day.

They’re an urban riding club. They used to maintain the horses for the police department there. And then once the police department department stopped [using] mounted horses, they just left it to this group. They left the horses to this group to kind of maintain and care for these horses. And it was never a formal group. They never had an LLC. They never bought the land. Eventually a land developer purchased the stables, tore them down, and put a condo there.

The group doesn’t really exist anymore because they were never... again, this thing was integrated into the community for 100 years, and once it was gone, everybody realized what a loss that was. Before that, they had never even thought about giving it a formal name. Some people call it the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, but Erin said that’s not the name. It doesn’t have a name. If you need to call it something, call it Fletcher Street Stables. So, she’s trying to get the group back together. She’s trying to do it right this time and actually make them a 501c3 organization, collect funding, own the stables and the land, but do it in the same community. It’s in the Strawberry Mansions neighborhood of Philadelphia, which is a really rough neighborhood. But that the stables are there give youths an alternative lifestyle that’s immediate to them and allows them to do something that they probably would never get the opportunity to do without the stables.

Dave Miller:  If you’re just tuning in, I’m talking right now with the Portland based photographer and designer Ivan McClellan. His photos of Black cowboys in America is a multiyear series called Eight Seconds. They are on view right now at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and we can talk more about that in just a second. But I should note that you haven’t just been digging deep into Black rodeos. You’ve also gone to Mexican and Native American ones. And it seems like one of the things that unifies this work is that you’re exploding this myth that cowboys and western culture is White culture, about White men, about a White Marlboro man. That wasn’t true in the past. It’s not true now. But the myth has been really pervasive and sticky. How do you explain that?

Ivan McClellan: I think a lot of it starts, ironically enough, with Buffalo Bill, who is the namesake of the museum that I am in currently, which is really interesting. Buffalo Bill had a wild west show, and it toured the world for 30 years and went to every single major city on the planet, basically... at least in Europe and in America. He was, at one point, the most recognizable celebrity in the world and in this show, he was a frontiersman. He warred with the Native Americans, if you want to use that word. He allegedly worked on the Pony Express, and then he took all of those stories and put it in this wild west show. He had actual Native Americans in the show, and he had big western figures like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane in this show. He had chieftains like Sitting Bull in the show.

It was a huge, spectacular. Think Ringling Brothers that would roll into town on multiple train cars, and they would set it up and it would run for days. The story was white men are good, Indians are bad, and they were on equal footing and they fought each other in war for years.

Dave Miller: And is it also that Black people don’t exist in this version of the west. White good, Indian bad, and nobody else is here.

Ivan McClellan: Yeah, basically. They would have other traditions of cowboy in the show, but they weren’t prominent and they weren’t the good guys. They had Mexican cowboys in the show. They had Black men in the show that worked in the band and things like that. But they didn’t have cowboys in the show at all. pAnd so that image of Buffalo Bill and the image of the White cowboy as the hero permeated American entertainment really early. This was in the late 1800s, and that carried over into film. That’s how you got John Wayne, and that’s how you got Lonesome Dove and Bonanza. All of these were an extension of the tradition of that show.

Dave Miller: What does it mean to you to have these photos, for example, on display at the Buffalo Bill Center right now?

Ivan McClellan: You know, I didn’t get it. I didn’t. When they approached me initially, I was kind of skeptical. I was just like, I don’t know that that’s right. I didn’t know if I was ready to do a solo show because there’s so many stories that I need to tell. I haven’t even touch farming. I have years and years and years of work that still needs to be done, and I’m not there yet. And I told my wife and she laughed at me, and she was like, you have hundreds of thousands of photos. Of course you’re ready. Put your work in the museum, go do it.

Cody Wyoming is the rodeo capital of America. That’s what they call it. They have a rodeo every single night there during the summer. The Buffalo Bill center is in the town of 9,000 people, but it’s like a Smithsonian-level museum. They have a massive gun collection. I think they have the largest gun collection in the United States [for] historical weaponry. They have a Plains Indian museum. They have a natural history museum. They have a massive art exhibit with fine art pieces by Rembrandt, and they have paintings from the 1800s that are just gorgeous. The centerpiece of the entire museum is this exhibit about the history and legacy of Buffalo Bill, who founded the town of Cody Wyoming.

His name is Buffalo Bill Cody, William Cody. That’s how I really learned all of this information about Buffalo Bill. When I dropped off the photos, I walked through [the museum] and I was stunned by the White centeredness of the place, and was just blown away by the story of Buffalo Bill. He’s really an amazing guy and really did a lot during that time in the space of entertainment, in the space of storytelling.

In his lifetime, he accomplished a ton of things. But to have my work there in this particular space, in this White-centric town, in the center of whiteness, and you run directly, smack dab into these authentic pictures of Black people, is so disruptive. It’s so disruptive to this icon. It’s so disruptive to this imagery that I think it’s exactly the right place that it should be in.

I’m so glad that I did it. And the museum has been enormously supportive, and they understand the magnitude of this work in their space, and they just put all kinds of like energy behind it. I’m really, really proud to have it there. So, it’s truly been a collaboration. I saw the exhibit on its opening and was really moved by the entire story

Dave Miller: Five years into your work, iconic Western brands like Stetson and Wrangler and others... they started coming to you. The sense I get is that they saw a business case for diversifying their Western imagery. What did they tell you that they wanted from you and why?

Ivan McClellan: They absolutely saw an opportunity. A lot of it came after George Floyd was murdered. There was just a big cultural conversation about diversity and about elevating Black voices. Some of the media and marketing managers of these companies took that seriously, and looked through their feeds, and look through their Instagram and we’re like, all we’ve ever posted are pictures of White people. The closest we will get is that, once every nine months, maybe we’ll post a picture of a lighter-skinned Black, but we’ve never posted authentic cowboys.

So, they came to me and wanted to tell stories. Some of the brands really wanted to tell the stories of the of these competitors and of these farmers, and really start to elevate that culture. Some of them fell off immediately after that, after the protests of the summer kind of died down. Their interest in the work died down. But some of them really committed and have been doing this for a few years now, and have really transformed the way that they go about presenting themselves in the Western space.

It’s difficult because you build a brand on this image of White folks and then all of a sudden you’re posting pictures of Black people, your audience isn’t used to that. So, the content  underperforms a lot of the time. They’re good photos. They’re on-brand. They’ll post an identical photo of a White woman and a Black woman, and the image of the White woman will get three times the engagement as the image of the Black woman because their their audiences just aren’t there yet. But I think it takes some persistence and commitment to still do the work despite despite that lack of initial engagement, and I’m seeing it grow over time. Incrementally, people get more and more engaged with this content.

Dave Miller: As you’ve said, you didn’t know very much at all about this particular world, the world of Black cowboys and Black rodeos, when you were growing up. What do you want your kids to know about this world, or to learn from your work?

Ivan McClellan: I hope that my kids and kids in general, the new generation, will not think much about Black cowboys... that that won’t be a thing for them. I hope that they just... when they draw a cowboy, they just draw it with the Brown face, Black or Brown, just automatically. And that they’re like, these are these cowboys. This is what this is what a cowboy looks like. Then that’s fine. If they choose to draw a picture of a cowboy with a White face, that’s cool too. I’m not at all trying to disrupt... I’m not trying to change the icon of the White cowboy. I think it’s really good, and I think it’s a solid piece of America. I’m just trying to add to it. I’m trying to expand it and say that there’s more to this story than you think. That’s what I want out of my kids. I mean, they already have grown up in a space, grown up around my work, and I don’t know that they’ve ever seen a White cowboy. I don’t think that they have...

Dave Miller: Someday you’ll have to tell them they exist when that day comes. No hurry.

Ivan McClellan: Our son is going to get invited to a White rodeo and would be incredulous about it.

Dave Miller: I had no idea that this existed! Ivan McClellan, can you tell us about your first horse?

Ivan McClellan: I have yet to have that horse yet, but...

Dave Miller: I was half joking, but half serious. You’ve been steeped in this world for so long, and not just taking pictures of people getting to know them. Have you ended up riding horses? I assume you have not ridden a bull yet, because you don’t just do that. But how much have you been actually taking part in the riding of this?

Ivan McClellan: I haven’t ridden a bull because I’m too old and not flexible. I’m way too tall to ride a bull. But I’ve written a few horses. I’m not at all good at it. The first time that I really, earnestly rode a horse was with a champion bull rider named Charlie Sampson. Charlie Sampson is the first and only Black man to win the National Finals Rodeo in bull riding, and that was in 1982, I believe. Now he’s in his sixties, and he does calf roping as his competition. We were at a rodeo and I was taking photos of him and he said, get on this horse. His name is Pete. I said, I don’t really ride horses, Charlie. He said you can ride Pete. Anybody can ride Pete.

So, I got on the horse and Pete just started going. Pete just started doing his thing, and I was just sitting on top of Pete. Pete was following Charlie. If Charlie would run on his horse, Pete would run as well. We were just standing there and this stock contractor, who brings the animals to the rodeo, came up to us and said, I need you boys to go in there and put those steer in the bucking chutes. I said, well this is where I get off the horse. Number one, you don’t call me boy.  Number two, I’m not going. Charlie just cut me off and he said, come on!

So, we went into the corral, and there were about 50 steer in there. Charlie is yelling at me to get out of the way and don’t let the steer get past me. I’m just riding this horse like corralling steer all of a sudden, and did a horrible job at it, but learned a lot and got off the horse afterwards. So that was one of my first horse riding experiences... doing authentic cowboy work.

Dave Miller: Ivan McClellan, it was a pleasure talking to you. Congratulations on this new show.

Ivan McClellan: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Dave Miller: Ivan McClellan is a Portland-based photographer and designer. His series of photographs of Black cowboys called Eight Seconds is on display right now at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. You can also see his photos online.

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