Photo Essay

At the Reins

Portland-based photographer Ivan McClellan talks about the backstories of his series, Eight Seconds.

Photography by Ivan McClellan Edited by Marty Patail September 7, 2021 Published in the Fall 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Portland-based photographer Ivan McClellan travels the country to document Black rodeo riders, cowboys, cowgirls, and more. What started as a one-off is now an ongoing series called Eight Seconds.

Here, the Kansas native shares the backstories of some of his subjects.

That’s Kortnee Solomon (above), and she’s a barrel racer (a rodeo event where horses and riders try to run a cloverleaf pattern around a set of three barrels in the shortest time). She lives in Hempstead, Texas. And she comes from a long line of rodeo folk. Her mother, Kanesha Jackson, is a champion barrel racer. Her grandmother Stephanie Haynes is like royalty in the Black rodeo community. Kortnee has accomplished a lot for herself at the age of 11.... With her horse, she just sort of sits on it, like a chair, and she’ll stay on it for hours. They’re sort of synced up.

This particular photo is at their family arena, which is down the street from their house. It was in a break [between] thunderstorms. She just grabbed me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a photo,” and walked over to this bush and threw her hat back like that.  

That is Cory Solomon (above). He is a champion calf roper—he’s qualified for the National Finals Rodeo seven times. He’s won millions of dollars. And he is Kortnee Solomon’s dad. I met him on a completely different project on a completely different day and didn’t know he was her dad. You know, you’ll just find this going through this world, that everybody’s connected to everybody. You’ll find out that this person is this person’s cousin. I had taken a photograph of Stephanie Haynes years before I knew she was Kanesha’s mom—you just make all of these connections as you go.

Cory Solomon comes from a ranching family. So he had a lot of support to begin with. Most of the folks that I meet have full-time jobs, and they rodeo when they can. You need horse feed, you need equipment, you need a truck trailer, you need gas, you need a hotel.... You live on the road from June to October if you’re going to rodeo professionally. To compete at a top level where you can win the championship, you need to have a hundred grand, cash. You have to pay rodeo fees as well. And so the only way that you can do that is if you have a family backing you, or if you have sponsorship. And sponsors typically haven’t shown any interest in Black athletes. That’s why you see a large lack of representation of Black folks at the top levels of rodeo. Some of the horses in these pictures are anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000.

Sponsors, I think, are just now shifting and starting to realize their role in the lack of representation in rodeo. Kanesha just got sponsored by Wrangler. That’s really going to be transformative to her performances and what she’s able to do as an athlete. I would say five years ago, when I started doing this, nobody had a sponsor and now there’s a handful of folks.

Kortnee (above) grew up around horses. Her mom rode horses, her grandma rode horses. She grew up going to rodeos. I don’t know that there was ever a decision she made to do it. It was just sort of automatically part of her upbringing and part of her lifestyle. I imagine at some point, she’ll get into her teens and kind of go like, “Why am I doing this?” But for the time being, she just races horses on the weekend. That’s just what her family tradition is. She also plays basketball and goes to school and does TikTok dances with her friends. She has a lot of other stuff going on.

This is at the Moda Center in Portland (below), at a Professional Bull Riding, or PBR, event that came through town in January 2020. It’s one of the last photos I took before everything shut down. There was a bunch of pyrotechnics right before; that’s why there’s smoke in the air. Garrion Hull [in the orange chaps] is on the rise in the Velocity Tour, which is sort of the lower rungs of the PBR. He was the only Black competitor at that entire event.

This man in the overalls (below) is doing an event called the Pony Express, a relay race where teams of seven compete against each other and they ride quarterhorses around the arena and pass the baton ... a crazy hectic event. The horses are hyped up, the crowd is screaming at a fever pitch. This event mostly happens in Oklahoma at Black rodeos. You hardly see it anywhere else. People show up wearing T-shirts of their favorite team. This guy is on a team called the Country Boyz. They’re one of the most popular and successful teams. Pony Express is my favorite. People fall off their horses, there’s hats flying everywhere, it’s too many horses for an arena—it’s absolute chaos.

Jazmen Marie (below) was Miss Black Arizona USA for 2018. I met her in the parking lot of the arena as I was leaving the rodeo in Chandler ... and she just looked like actual royalty.

I just love this photo. It’s representative of Black rodeos—they’re more than just the rodeo. The rodeo is probably secondary to it being a cultural event. There’s civil rights leaders. There’s representatives of motorcycle clubs. There’s Buffalo Soldier groups there, and there’s beauty pageants there. And so she shows up in her crown and sash at a public event like this, because rodeos are the place to be seen.

I met Tori Bush (above) in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, at an all-Black rodeo. She was getting ready for the competition so she was a little bit annoyed that I would take her out of her focus. It’s all about timing, you know. If you meet these folks two hours before the competition, they’re very nice and very open and very welcome to do whatever it is that you need to do and share their story. But if you talk to them an hour before competition, everything changes. The look on their face changes; they are laser focused. As a photographer, it’s a matter of me adjusting my approach and being in tune to where they’re at.

Ivan McClellan is a photojournalist based in Portland. His essays have been feature in Atmos, Dazed, ESPN: The Undefeated, and Modern Huntsman. His work has been displayed in museums and galleries, including the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Booth Museum. He has spoken on the Moth mainstage and appeared on the Mountain and Prairie podcast. Ivan is a husband and father of two children. He is by no means a cowboy but does enjoy riding horses from time to time—sometimes you have to be on a horse to get the shot.

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