Not His First Time at the Rodeo — Photographer Reconnects with His Cowboy Past

Wednesday September 23, 2020

Luke Gilford
Luke Gilford  (Source:Instagram)

In 2016 LA-based photographer Luke Gilford was at a Pride event in Northern California when he heard a familiar voice - Dolly Parton singing "9 to 5." "What he found there would change his life," writes The Guardian in a profile of him.

It was the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association, a chapter of the International Gay Rodeo Association, a group determined to break stereotypes about cowboys.

"I had no idea this existed. I really didn't think it was real."

Gilford is an internationally renowned photographer who counts amongst his fans Jane Fonda and has been profiled in the New York Times where he can be seen dressed in a cowboy hat.

"Gilford is best known for music videos and fashion spreads featuring glitzy showbiz high fliers: Lizzo, David Lynch, Christina Aguilera, as well as Fonda and (Pamela) Anderson," adds the Guardian. He has chronicled the Miss America Pageant and profiled transgender model Hari Nef, but his best-known work is a 90-second clip he created for Prada called "The Future of Flesh," which features models, a voice-over from Jane Fonda "that suggests the sci-fi implications of going under the knife," and an original score by Jake Shears, reports the New York Times.

"Like his work, Mr. Gilford has a unique fashion sensibility. He is often seen around town in a cowboy hat (a hand-me-down from his father, a former rodeo judge), paired with athletic shoulder pads over his bare torso, or a sweatshirt with an exposed back. 'I love seeing people do a double take,' he said. 'They never seem to know what to think,'" he told the Times.

That hat he wears belonged to his father, "who was a rodeo champion and subsequent judge in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association," writes the Guardian. But the Colorado-born Gilford realized he didn't fit into this world. "The mainstream rodeo world is, you know, obviously, very homophobic and conservative. There's so much machismo. It's racist."

But meeting the members of the Golden State Bay Rodeo Association turned his head. ""We all know what a rodeo is," he says, "and we all know what queer is. We don't think of them going together."

It inspired him on a project to visit the 15 groups of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) has 15 member groups across the US, with one more in the Canadian Rockies. He began saving to make trips to cover the circuit. "I was living in New York at the time. So I would fly to the south-west, rent a truck then travel around - to New Mexico, Utah, Colorado."

"The project is mostly portraiture, often close-up, with some shots against the backdrop of those fabled big skies and endless expanses. And Gilford was no outsider looking in: he clearly saw himself in the people he met. 'We're all from places that are still hostile to queerness.'" he told The Guardian.

He tried to move beyond the erotic fetishism of cowboys found in the media and in adult gay porn videos. "How often do you see something like that?" says Gilford. "Gay cowboys have long been fetishised in pornography, as in art, but this was completely authentic. It's a real community. These are real lovers."

And move beyond the stereotypes of rural LGBTQ people. "Usually when we hear about rural queerness it's in a negative way," he tells the Guardian. "It's like something bad has happened - it's the Matthew Shepard story. We don't have examples, really, in pop culture of people who are queer and living real lives and living their best life."

He also feels that these photos help bring him back to his roots. "I've never totally identified with urban queer culture, which is about celebrating this escape, perhaps, from rural places. It's about partying, consumerism, capitalism." The queer rodeo world struck a different chord. "It is so much more about a connection to the land, to animals, to community."

Check out some of his Instagram self-portraits below:

And a few of his cowboy portraits:

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