New York Times Photojournalist Ivan McClellan Travels Across America to Capture the Essence of Black Cowboy Culture

Photo Credit: TN / Ivan McClellan

New York Times photojournalist Ivan McClellan had been practicing photography for nearly a decade and had yet to find a subject matter he truly wanted to focus on. He’d captured brilliant street photography and editorial work but it wasn’t until filmmaker Charles Perry took him to a Black rodeo that his passion project began to come to life.

“I’d never seen barrel racers with braids blowing back in the wind as they rode going 50 miles per hour with acrylic nails,” McClellan said. “I’d never seen a lot of these fantastic things.”

McClellan’s first Black rodeo was a transformative experience that would take him across America from Philly to Compton capturing the essence of the Black cowboy culture in America. A historical and impactful movement in US history, Black cowboys have long been a part of the fabric of America; with photographs of Black cowboys dating back to the 1860s. McClellan started photographing Black American cowboy culture in 2015 to capture the intersection where Black cowboys and American history meet. Growing up in Kansas, McClellan had never experienced Black cowboys prior to attending the rodeo.

Photo Courtesy of Ivan McClellan.

“I’d see these tough white men, Montgomery Cliff and John Wayne, just sort of standing up for their values and defending their families and being independent and being gritty,” he said. “And that was something I thought was really cool but unattainable for me because I didn’t see representation of folks that looked like myself. Media presented me with a ball or a microphone.”

McClellan’s time at the Black rodeo was a pivotal moment in his photography career. Slowly, he fell in love with the scene and the people who clung to the reins and barrels.

“It was so much vibrancy, so much color, so much fashion, and motion and it was a culture that I related to being from Kansas but one I didn’t really know existed,” he said. “I had no idea that there were thousands of Black cowboys.”

McClellan’s travels and photos culminated into a series titled Eight Seconds: Black Cowboys in America, showcasing the grit and strength of the Black rodeo community. Black cowboys can be found in nearly every state in the US, especially out West.

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SOURCE: Travel Noire, Jasmine Osby