Pro rodeo photographer Dan Hubbell will snap pictures of the WNFR contestants for the 20th year in a row
November 22, 2016
Dan Hubbell has seen a lot of rodeo through the camera lens.
The PRCA photographer has been framing the rodeo action since he was riding bucking horses, then picking up his camera to shoot the rodeo.
He grew up in a rodeo family, the younger son of Rube and Ethel (better known as Sis) Hubbell, on a ranch near Pinedale, Wyoming. His mom took family photos with an old Kodak Brownie, documenting family history, and was good at it.
His dad was a saddle bronc rider and ranch cowboy who never strayed far from home, but who fellow cowboys said was good enough to have made the National Finals Rodeo if he'd have wanted to. Dan and his older brother Mike both competed, and when the Rodeo Sports News (forerunner to the Pro Rodeo Sports News) came in the mail, Dan would study it. "I always thought those pictures of a horse all stretched out and a guy in the mane, or a calf roper stepping out of the stirrup were pretty cool."
After a year at Casper College, Dan followed his brother to California to rodeo. He was taking photos by then, with a camera Mike had brought back for him from Vietnam. After competing at a rodeo, he'd head back to the hotel to a makeshift dark room, turning out 8x10s.
But after going broke rodeoing, he came back to Wyoming, finding a job as a photo finisher in Casper. He worked weeks and rodeoed weekends, staying there for ten years.
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Then the place folded, and he went to work in the beverage industry.
During this time, Dan had married and had a daughter, a barrel racer. While she competed at high school and college rodeos, he followed with his camera. Then, when she went on to the pro ranks, he was there, too. "It got to snowballing," he said.
Since 1989, rodeo photography has been his full time profession. He and his wife Linda work about fifteen rodeos a year, including some of the biggest ones in the nation: Cheyenne, Greeley, Colo., Pendleton, Ore., Red Bluff, Oakdale and Clovis, Calif., Ellensburg, Wash., Tucson, Ariz., the College National Finals, and this year, for the twentieth time, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo. Taking photos at pro rodeos supreme event was his ultimate goal. "You get a taste of that and you want more," he said. "It's like winning a gold buckle. You want to keep winning them."
He credits his wife Linda with her partnership in the business. While he's in the arena taking photos, she's selling them to contestants, printing them from the portable printer they haul around. And as soon as the rodeo action is over each day, Linda downloads the photos to the computer, filing them by day, performance, and contestant name, so they are easy to find.
"I'd have never gotten (to the Wrangler NFR) without my partner," Dan said. "The women do all the work," he joked. But he's serious, too. "I wouldn't be there if it wasn't for her. A lot of guys go out there and try to do it alone, but it doesn't work as well. I think it takes two of you. Just like ranching. Partner up, and everybody goes to work."
Of all the rodeo events, the bareback and saddle bronc riding are his favorite to photograph. And it's taken a while to figure out what the cowboys and cowgirls are looking for when they buy a picture of themselves.
Steer wrestlers like photos with their hand on the left horn, the other hand reaching for the second horn. When they're on the ground, "they like pictures of them in the curl, bringing a steer's head around."
Team ropers like "to have their horse turning off and turning that steer with their front end off the ground." The heel photo can be tough, Dan said. "That heel shot is a real timing shot, to get a good shot. They throw that loop fast."
The barrel racers prefer the right angle, with their horse in the right lead, and bull riders like their bull to be in the air, when a lot of bulls are spinners and look flat in photos.
Shooting the Wrangler NFR has its challenges. The Thomas and Mack Arena at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas is actually a basketball court-turned rodeo arena, with the edges filled in with pens and chutes. Photographers are not allowed in the arena during the tie-down, team roping or steer wrestling, so as to not disrupt a run. So for those events, Dan is on the bucking chutes, shooting towards the timed event box. He is one of four rodeo photographers chosen to shoot the Wrangler NFR. Two of them shoot candids and two of them are in the arena. After the rodeo each night, Linda downloads photos and provides them to the PRCA for publicity, news and social media use. Wrangler NFR contestants don't usually buy photos during the rodeo, it seems, Linda said. "They come to you fifteen years later," she joked, to buy their photos. "I think there's so much going on, that pictures take a back seat."
He and Linda have been married since 2003. They met at the Tucson, Ariz. rodeo. Linda grew up in Burlington, Ontario, outside of Toronto. A professional bicycle racer, she competed like the Tour de France bikers. She spent winters in Tucson training, and lived next to a Tucson rodeo committee member who invited her to volunteer at the rodeo, where she met Dan.
She doesn't get to watch many rodeos, as she is selling photos while Dan shoots. But she gets the chance to see them when she downloads them each day. She admires the athleticism of the sport. "Coming from an athletic background, I can appreciate all of it. I don't think there's an event I don't really like."
She and Dan live in their fifth wheel trailer and make it as comfortable as possible, with pots of lettuce and herbs growing outside the front door and western décor on the inside. "We spend a lot of time in it, so we try to make it homey," Linda said. They travel with their cat, Woodrow, and their dog, Tally.
Dan's had help along the way. A professor at Casper College who was also a commercial photographer taught him how to use a darkroom, and after his college rodeos, he'd borrow it to develop his photos.
His uncle lent him one hundred dollars to buy an enlarger, tubes and reels. And a rodeo photographer, Jerry Gustafson, helped him as well, showing him how to process color, among other things. "He tutored me," Dan remembered. "He liked me so he wasn't afraid to tell me the secrets he knew. He was a really good photographer."
This year, the couple was in Amarillo, Texas in early November to shoot the Working Ranch Cowboys Association Finals for the first time. But wherever they go, they are highly respected. "He has a good reputation," Linda said. "He has a good rapport with committees. I think he's really professional when he's in the arena. He takes his job seriously."