In Gay Rodeo Photographs, A Bull Rider Unintentionally Captured History

Jun 2, 2016

Blake Little made pictures of beautiful cowboys.

Little was a professional photographer, doing film and television work and shooting magazine covers in Los Angeles. When he and a friend went to their first rodeo, he wanted to be a cowboy, too.

“We were hooked immediately, by the whole scene, watching it, imagining that these guys were really doing this, and they were gay,” Little would later say of the first International Gay Rodeo Association event he attended, in Los Angeles in 1988.

Within six months, Little was riding a bull.

“There were better bull riders,” he tells KCUR, “but I did win the championship in 1990.”

Blake Little's 'Chute Dogging, Phoenix, Arizona,' 1989
Credit Blake Little

Little never imagined his pictures would be exhibited in art galleries, but Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo is showing the next two weekends at the Mid-America Arts Alliance. Organized by the the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, the exhibition also spent last summer at the Salina Art Center.

The photos were originally published in a Los Angeles gay newspaper, mostly to promote the rodeo, Little says. He’d put them away in a file cabinet.

But he was eventually contacted by a historian named Gregory Hinton, who was researching the role of gays in the American West and eventually brought the images to the attention of Eiteljorg curator Johanna Blume.

“I certainly wasn’t trying to make a statement, but I think time has a way of giving you a different perspective on photography,” Little says.

The face that he was a rider, too, gave Little unique access to his subjects.

“The cowboys knew who I was,” he says. “People trusted me. They were my friends. I was behind the chutes.”

Blake Little's 'Bareback Bronc Riding, San Diego, California,' 1992
Credit Blake Little

The photos would be compelling enough for their depictions of handsome men involved in an iconic American sports. What makes them more deeply affecting, however, is the fact that many of them died young of AIDS.

Little had taken pictures from 1988 through 1992. By the end of that last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control had reported nearly 200,000 deaths from AIDS in the U.S.

“Many of the cowboys who you see in these pictures, who were my close friends, are no longer with us,” Little wrote in a statement on one of the wall plaques. “This work has never been exhibited before, and going through negatives and proof sheets from this time has brought back so many memories and stories for me. I want to share these images for two reasons: to memorialize my unforgettable experiences in gay rodeo in the late 1980s, and to honor the cowboys who competed with me and let a huge mark on my life.”

Blake Little's 'Los Angeles Cowboys, Sun Valley, California,' 1989
Credit Blake Little

Of the men who died, Little says, “I think the guys would be proud and happy that their pictures are being seen. It’s just wonderful and great that the photos are showing them in a great light, at a time when they were doing a significant activity in their lives.”

Little stopped riding bulls in 1992.

“I saw my friends get hurt,” he says, recounting a litany of rodeo injuries: a friend who had to have facial reconstruction surgery after a bull stepped on his face, another friend who broke a leg, another friend who broke an arm.

“I felt like, I won in 1990,” he says. “I’m a photographer and self-employed, so decided I should focus on my photography.”

Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo is on display from 11-3 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. on June 3, and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on June 9-10 at the Mid-America Arts Alliance, 2018 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-421-1388.

C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.