Baxter Black: Rodeo photo
The photograph is spread across two pages of the Rodeo Sports News. In the upper right hand corner is written “Worth a Thousand Words.”
The subjects in the photo are the bull, bull rider and bullfighter. The rider, wearing his helmet and protective vest, appears to be coming out from under the bull’s front legs in the position of a sprinter pushing off the blocks. The bullfighter is directly behind the rider and directly in front of the bull’s obscured head. The bull’s hind end is in the air and the bull rope has come loose.
As one tries to untangle the action blurred by flying dirt, it appears that each of the subjects has one foot on the ground! Most of the rodeo photos feature action shots of rough stock riders making a classic ride. But in this particular photograph the left page shows only the bull’s body from the elbow back. When looked at alone it seems so benign. Like a leather-covered sofa being dropped from a two story building just about to hit the ground!
When you open up the centerfold you realize this 1,800-pound sofa is throwing itself into the ravel of chaps, legs, feet, arms, horns and heads! Your eye is immediately drawn to the right horn. It’s maybe 16 inches long, too thick for a man to reach around, and tipped. The sawed-off tip looks like the eye on a hammerhead shark. This angle of the horn indicates it is a nanosecond away from crashing into the sprinting cowboy! Your eye travels up the bullfighter’s right arm to his face then back down to where his right hand rests on the protruding horn. Over to the fingers of his left hand, with thumb up raised, which appears to be lightly pressing on the bull rider’s vest as if he were playing a musical instrument. It delineates a triangle whose focus is the expression on the bull rider’s face.
You can’t see the bullfighter’s eyes, they’re shaded by the brim of his hat. There is no facial contortion, no clinched jaw, no grimace or gritting of teeth, no manifestation of the full-bore chaos in which he is immersed. He’s poised at the center of a hurricane as engrossed as an astronaut manipulating his flaming shuttle back into the atmosphere.
If you blocked the bull and the rider out of the picture, the bullfighter could just as easily be a man watching the dial go round at a gas pump, or shopping for avocados, or tightening a bolt at a shipyard. His calm concentration belies no panic. Yet he is mid-air, on the cusp of a clean escape… or bone crunching collision.
Rodeo clowns, bullfighters and barrelmen are categorized as “personnel” in rodeo parlance, along with secretaries, timers and announcers. That’s like categorizing a kamikaze pilot with the guy that washes his windshield! I have known many rodeo clowns over the years. I’ve never known one who is not serious about his job. Every time the gate swings open they walk into the tiger cage armed with courage, quick reflexes and experience tempered under fire. And when it comes together like it does in this photo, it demonstrates all the grace and guts and glory that we associate with the superhuman aspects of our cowboy game… rodeo!
John Wayne’s got nothing on Wacey Munsell. Photo by Jim Fain.
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