First, a little background: I have lived in small-town Wisconsin for the last four years. Coming from California it was a bit of a shock; not because it was so different in the city, but rather, maybe for the first time, I felt like I was truly home. My wife and I moved with our one dog, got another dog, had our first child, and most recently bought our first house. Somewhere in the middle about two years ago, I discovered film photography and down the rabbit hole I went; buying cameras, testing film stocks, learning to develop and scan my work and try to discover my style as I studied photo books by the masters. Fast forward to this summer and an annual event that comes to town called Wild West Days is taking place and with it, the rodeo and that’s where my story actually begins…
I tie a red bandana around my neck and mount a brown leather wide-brimmed hat upon my head so as to channel the demographic I’d be shooting today. Of course, there would be little to no blending in when you show up to a small town rodeo with two fifty-year-old+ cameras strapped around your neck.
I step into the pits with a silver body Nikon F with a Nikkor H 50mm f2 and across the other shoulder, a black body Nikkormat FTN with a 28mm f3.5 lens both loaded with Ultrafine Xtreme 400 speed film. This choice was inspired by a video I had watched of William Albert Allard doing some similar ranch shooting with this lens combo (although adorned to his Leicas of course).
It’s about 6:30 pm and the riders are just beginning to gear up. It is the preparation and natural demeanor I was most interested in capturing beyond just the bull riding so I make my way through both sides of the pits underneath the bleachers and try to capture these gentlemen in their element. Crowd favorite riders are announced and a man in clown makeup lays out his spiel of jokes before the national anthem is sung. The sense of Americana is overwhelming as you look around the stadium to see a full crowd.
There is no Covid; only cowboys, and the smell of funnel cakes and cheese curds in the air. I ask a gentleman to my right where the closest beer stand is and in typical midwest fashion, takes my money and brings me back a cold one.
The first event to take place is the bull riding. By this point I am on my second roll in at least one camera and decide to make a mental note it would be pushed one stop to 800 as the sun begins to crest behind the nearby hills. I am crouching on the ground through the railing to get a close-up view as the bulls do their thing swiftly taking out most riders in the first ten seconds. As entertaining as it is, I am left wishing those competing would be on a little longer for me to have more time to compose. F8-F11 is my friend here as I squint through the viewfinder to frame the action and try to hyperfocal distance guesstimating via the lens scale.
Next up is the cattle-herding which is a team effort between multiple riders on horseback to get numbered steer to one side of the pen in the shortest amount of time. After that was round two of the bull riding which is then proceeded by some roping the same numbered steer from earlier and grabbing a flag off them to run to one side of the pen by a second team member on foot.
It’s starting to get dark and I realize I am going to have to miss focus more often than not or switch rolls and push two stops to 1600 so I give that a go. A young boy about eleven or so to my right asks how old my cameras are and upon answer, comments that they are built to last if you take good care of them (very astute on his part to even notice anything besides an iPhone; there’s hope for Gen Z yet!)
The final steer are roped and last up is a class for women on horseback pummeling around an oval course circling two barrels. I try with all my might to capture the horses’ contorting body as it winds around one of the barrels near me. I fire a few frames off and decide despite the stadium lighting, it’s just too dark to get anything else useable. I retire for the night and get my film prepped to develop the next day.
I end up using my typical combo of Kodak HC110B at 68F degrees adjusting dev time for the pushed rolls respectively. UFX is certainly a coarse salt and pepper grain film that when zoomed-in over 200% view, can come off rather harsh but I felt like it was a good contender for the grime and grit that is small-town rodeo and had quite a few rolls in my fridge to use up anyway (I sure wish it would come back in 120)…
In the end, I am very glad I gave the 28mm lens a shot (pun intended) because I hadn’t found many scenarios to use it so far and feel it added some variable interest to the series having more context and scenery involved. I had a blast my first time doing more reportage based photography and while there isn’t much going on in the “streets” of small-town Wisconsin, plan on attending more local community-based events in an attempt to further document some of the unique happenings and rituals that take place in the section of the midwest I have called home for the last four years.
A big thank you to Hamish for having me on the site and if you would like to check out more of my work, you can do so at:
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