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Through the Lens

The photographs of Jerry Gustafson capture a benchmark era in rodeo.
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In the 1970s, there was hardly a cowboy or cowgirl who came from a chute, box, or alley who wasn’t captured on film by rodeo photographer Jerry Gustafson. Gustafson shot more than 400 professional, junior, Little Britches, high school, and college rodeos, amassing a portfolio of more than 2 million photographs.

Born and raised on a ranch operation in eastern South Dakota, Gustafson has always been enthralled with the Western way of life. 

“I spent my childhood summers on horseback,” he says. “I absolutely loved it.”

His prolific career had humble beginnings: it started in high school as a way to get out of study hall and a school-commissioned Polaroid. “I had just enough sense to not ask which end of the camera to look through,” chuckles Gustafson.

“It turns out that I liked photography,” he says. “After a month of working with the Polaroid, I went out and spent $519.62 for my own camera and flash. And I always loved rodeo—growing up, I used to go to the Crystal Springs Ranch Rodeo every year, my hometown rodeo. So I asked myself, ‘Can I combine the two?’ I took my camera to a college rodeo in South Dakota and the rest is history.”

Twelve full-time years on the rodeo road followed—12 years of all-night driving to make the first performance, developing negatives in his travel trailer dark room, and perpetually hunting for the next great shot. 

From Cheyenne to San Angelo, Gustafson memorialized a benchmark era in rodeo, and 700 of his photographs, taken between 1970 and 1976, appear in his new book, Through the Lens of Jerry Gustafson. Rodeo heavyweights like Larry Mahan, John McBeth, and Leo Camarillo grace the pages along with names that may never have made the marquee, but are nevertheless part of rodeo’s history. 

 “I tried to represent as many cowboys, stock contractors, and rodeos as I could,” explains Gustafson. “It’s all part of rodeo history. The cowboys and cowgirls in my book were the cream of the crop in the ’70s—all the people we look up to today.”

For Gustafson, rodeo represented a special way of life and values worth protecting. He says, “America is losing its Western values, where all you need is a handshake and your word. There’s trust, honesty, and virtue—it’s the spirit that made America great and we don’t want to lose that.” 

Through the Lens of Jerry Gustafson can be purchased at GustafsonPhoto.com.