Longtime award-winning rodeo photographer James Fain passes away

Longtime award-winning rodeo photographer James Fain passed away on May 10. He was 80.

Back on Aug. 13, 2022, the Cache County Fair and Rodeo came to an end and it was also the end of a brilliant 60-year career for Fain in ProRodeo. The Cache County Fair and Rodeo was in Fain’s hometown of Logan, Utah.

Fain was born in Iowa but raised in Arizona and that’s where his interest in rodeo began.

“I had a grade school friend who had entered, and he talked me into entering the Phoenix Jaycees Junior Rodeo,” said Fain in an Aug. 19, 2022, issue of the ProRodeo Sports News. “I was in the calf riding. I fell off.”

That began a journey as a contestant that lasted off and on for many years, but with his typical dry wit, Fain made a big distinction between what he did compared to other competitors.

“I got on them, that was about it,” he said.

Fain rode bareback horses and bulls and steer wrestled.

“You hear these so-called old timers talking about back in the day. It was not the fairy tale story for me.”

Despite his struggles as a competitor, Fain was fascinated with the sport.

“I was running with a Western bunch, and I remember looking at the Western Horseman magazine all the time,” he said in the 2022 PSN article. “They would run rodeo stories with the photos of Devere Helfrich.”

Helfrich was the official photographer of the then Rodeo Cowboys Association.

“It piqued my interest, and I ended up with this, barely a camera thing and started snapping a few around the junior rodeos,” Fain said.

At only 19 in 1961, Fain had his first photos published in the Rodeo Sports News, the forerunner of the PSN, ironically opposite Helfrich’s images. He got his RCA card the following year.

“That first shot was of Ronnie Rossen in Douglas, Arizona,” Fain said. “The action was great, but the focus was a little behind. I was shooting with a 35mm with 200th of a second
speed. I think in that same issue, the spring issue, I had one of a bareback rider in Brawley (Calif.) and a saddle bronc at Payson (Ariz.). Those were good photos with decent focus.”

Fain’s prowess as a photographer put his photos in demand with contestants and media publications.

As photography evolved, Fain stayed up with the times allowing him to continue taking rodeo photos until August of 2022.

“Even with auto focus now, it’s still not perfect,” Fain admitted, lamenting at a “missed” shot during the 2022 Logan rodeo. “Then, when we got color that was a whole different deal. Some photos in color just jump out at you but I’m still prone to black and white.”

Still, he has made the transition from the days of chemical processing of film, oftentimes in the bathroom of a motel on the road, to uploading digital photos on a laptop without a hitch. It’s been an evolution, building into it.

When asked what his biggest challenges were, he noted he ‘didn’t remember cussing any of it.’

“Bull riding is the easiest and saddle broncs, I’ve got that nailed because of the Wrights. A good saddle bronc is easy to photograph, and you can get probably eight shots with the horse kicking.”

Fain celebrated his 50th year of shooting PRCA rodeos at the Evanston (Wyo.) Cowboy Days. During that stretch he was named ProRodeo’s Photographer of the Year two times.

Fain shot his first of 15 National Finals Rodeos in 1976 and he shot the first of 24 Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeos as well. He shot the National High School Finals, College National Finals Rodeo, Indian National Finals and countless other ProRodeos, Utah High School rodeos and college rodeos.

He also was one of the photographers at the Command Performance Rodeo put on by the PRCA on Sept. 24, 1983, at Landover, Maryland’s Capital Centre. The White House invitation-only rodeo event, included special guests President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan and there were 10,249 government dignitaries, including Ambassadors from 46 foreign countries.

Fain published two books of his photos and he earned the PRCA’s Photographer of the Year Award in 2006 and 2015.

In 2014, he was inducted in the Utah Cowboy Hall and Western Heritage Museum, and he joined the Idaho Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2018.

“The way I tried to handle myself in the arena, I tried to be invisible,” Fain said. “I set up so that I was not too visible to the crowd and not interfering with the action. It’s been fun and challenging.”

PRCA | Courtesy photo