Blake Little was just a Seattle-born city slicker with a fascination for cowboys and western culture, when he attended his first gay rodeo 1988.
“We were kind of obsessed with it,” the Los Angeles portrait photographer to the stars recalled in a telephone interview. “We couldn’t believe this was a gay rodeo and these were gay cowboys.”
Little and his friend quickly went from spectators to participants. They started with the easy stuff, but eventually Little moved up to steer riding and bull riding — winning the 1990 bull riding championship.
During the wait time between events, Little pulled out his camera.
“I was always taking pictures,” Little said.
It’s what he does.
“Once I started riding and competing I had complete access behind the chutes and the whole arena. I was able to take pictures that non-competitors couldn’t have access to,” he said.
Little quit competing in 1992.
And his photographs went into a filing cabinet — where they sat untouched and largely unknown until 2012.
That’s when Gregory Hinton, Hollywood film producer and creator of Out West, heard about Little’s photographs while researching the gay rodeo and its history in the American west.
Hinton was so taken by the photographs that he called Johanna Blume, associate curator of western art at Indianapolis’ (Indiana) Eiteljorg Museum.
Blume, a 2003 graduate of Rapid City Stevens High School, organized and curated Little’s photography exhibit, “Photographs from the Gay Rodeo.” It opened at the Eiteljorg in 2014.
A short time later, the exhibit began its countrywide tour.
Last week, it opened at Rapid City’s Dahl Arts Center.
And at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 28, Blume returns home to present the curator’s talk — explaining how the exhibit was put together, the idea behind it and the stories about the people featured in Little’s 41 photographs.
“It is important … to share the stories about the photographs,” she said. “Who these people are; what the rodeo circuit is like; and what it means to people.”
“What is really important about the gay rodeo circuit historically — and that is still relevant today — is that is it a venue for the pursuit of rodeo as a sport; a safe place for all gender identities and sexual orientations/ There are are no constraints on who participates in what events,” Blume said in a telephone interview.
For Little, the gay rodeo was an opportunity to chase a dream, within the safety of an all-accepting community. Many participants were amateurs.
“There was a huge contingent of gay guys and women who wanted to do rodeo, but not on a professional level. This (gay rodeo) became a way they could do it,” Little said.
There were some professional cowboys — many of whom were still closeted, Little said.
“I didn’t have the discrimination that a lot of rural cowboys did,” Little said.
His photographs were never intended to be a statement about gay rodeo or the political discussions of homosexuality.
“I did it for the love and camaraderie of these guys. I want people to look at them as photographs first, and gays second.
“I never imagined they would be in a museum,” Little said of the photos. “I did the photographs because I am a photographer and I create images about things that are part of life and the things I am drawn do. Cowboys and being involved in the rodeo is an aspect of this world, and I was a part of that world.”
For Hinton, Little’s photographs brought back memories of growing up in Cody, Wyo., and spending nearly every weekend and summer night at the rodeo with his newspaper editor father.
“What attracted me to them, was that it wasn’t any different from the rodeo I remembered,” Hinton said of Little’s photographs. “They are just men — portraits and action shots of men in rodeo.”
Hinton will travel to Rapid City next week to debut his program “Out West with Buffalo Bill,” a personal and historical presentation on the history and culture of LGBT communities in the American West. His keynote begins at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Dahl Art Center.
“I don’t have a political goal to my programming. My goal is to elaborate on our culture and preserve our gay history,” Hinton said.
The first gay rodeo was held in Reno, Nev. in 1976. An attempt to hold it one year earlier failed when no stock contractor would allow gay men to handle their animals, Hinton said.
For gay rodeo was created to for the gay men and women who had left their rural western communities and who felt like they had lost their identity, Hinton said.
“It helped them reclaim and celebrate that they were from rural western America,” Hinton said. “I love being from Wolf Point (Montana) and I loved being a kid in Cody, but it didn’t feel it wanted me, even though I still wanted it.”
Hinton now admits he was wrong.
“I realized I came with my own prejudices and biases as well,” he said. When he returned to Cody after his father’s death, many of his father’s friends and former associates welcomed him with open arms.
“It’s not right that we have to leave to feel safe,” Hinton said. “Visibility is the key to that not happening. We lose a lot by leaving the communities and families that raised us, and they lose a lot by not getting to know us too.”
Blume sees Little’s photographs as a way to bring people together.
“These are friends. They are family, and members of a community who share a common interest. That resonates with a lot of people — whatever their background. It is a community we are all a part of,” Blume said.
And the gay rodeo is a part of America’s western history.
“Now is a really important time to talk about the themes we are exploring in the show, and Rapid City is a great place to talk about them,” Blume said. “Rodeo is a part of life in south dakota.
“Hopefully people will be open to looking a familiar subjects from a different angle,” Blume said.
And Hinton encourages people to look at the photographs and see them through the lens of Little’s camera.
“To see it this way — it is what is the same about all of us, not what is different,” Hinton said.