LAST SUMMER, INTERNATIONALLY CELEBRATED photographer Mary Ellen Mark visited the rodeos of small-town Texas. She went to such towns as Sanderson and Seminole, Van Horn and Big Spring, and was at a rodeo on July 4—the holiday once known in cattle country as the cowboy’s Christmas. In the old days, cowboys from nearby ranches would stop work on Independence Day and come into town, where they would inevitably get to bragging about their wrangling and riding. In the West Texas town of Pecos, the cowboys of the early 1880’s would thunder down Main Street roping steers, using the courthouse square for a corral. The rodeo, according to some historical accounts, was born.
Today the rodeo continues. For photographers, the rodeo is an ideal spot to document the last remnants of the Old West. Usually their cameras focus on the archetypal cowboy: one arm flailing in the air as he struggles to hang on to the unconquerable bucking bronco. That is such a romantic image—the noble, lonely hero, bathed in the lights of a dusty rodeo arena—that it is easy to forget about anything taking place outside the arena.
Mary Ellen Mark, however, returned from places like Pecos with pictures that tell a different story. Mark, who makes her home in New York, is renowned for her ability to capture what the New York Times calls the “moral dimension” of her subjects. She has photographed homeless families, women in the maximum-security wing of a mental hospital, prostitutes in Bombay, and teenage runaways in Seattle. It is not the great and powerful figures who have made her best subjects but the outsiders—the ones she calls the “unfamous.”
At the rodeo, Mark captured such figures once again, this time within the crowds of people who faithfully turned out for their town’s annual celebration. She took no action shots, nothing of the rugged man fighting the untamed beast. For her, the action came from the mysterious pageantry that unfolded around the rodeo.
The photographs she brought back—a boy twirling a lasso, a rodeo clown with his monkey, a bonnet-clad child riding on top of a car driven by her expressionless father—are, at first, disturbing in their solemnity. Could this be right? Rodeos in rural Texas are a chance for the community to loosen up, drink a little beer, do some all-American flag waving. Always at those little arenas there is the opportunity for high drama: An angry bull might break through the gate, smash into cars in the parking lot, and then ramble off toward a distant field of green. There is also a good parade, with cowgirls in sequined suits, a high school marching band, a local riding club, and the state representative in a convertible, waving a hand back and forth like a windshield wiper. At the Saturday night dance, it’s a sure bet the band will play “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys,” maybe twice. During the Sunday morning cowboy service, the preacher will cheerfully inform his congregation that Jesus was the “original rodeo cowboy,” who rode into Jerusalem bareback on an unbroken colt.
“Look again,” Mark’s photos seem to be saying. Yes, the rodeo weekend is a