A legendary photographer for legendary cowboys
for The Fence Post
Lane Frost, Chris LeDoux and Ty Wallace are just the shiny bows on the large package of rodeo contestants Jerry Gustafson has had the honor to photograph during his career. Gustafson, who has taken more than 2 million photos, is recognized as one of the world’s best rodeo photographers.
In 1962, Gustafson purchased his first camera for $570 while living in South Dakota. He stumbled upon his passion for photography when he was a sophomore in high school and signed up for a yearbook opportunity. It started out as a way to skip class and hang out in the halls with friends during school. As he became more skilled in producing photos in a dark room and working with equipment, Gustafson looked for a more awakening niche in photography by capturing the perfect moments in the rodeo arena. Finding a passion for rodeo photography, he expressed, “I have never lost the love of rodeo photography, I have always been challenged to get the perfect shot; really it’s the love of the challenge”.
By 1970, Gustafson’s life became consumed with traveling nationally with the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Assocation, college, high school and Little Britches rodeo circuits full time and creating relationships with many cowboys. Gustafson traveled in a trailer with living quarters and a dark room for processing photos and soon he became a part of the rodeo family. Three months after becoming a full-time photographer for the rodeo, Gustafson was struck by a bareback rider’s horse. The incident did not tame Gustafson’s dedication and he packed the injury with cold drinks to finish out the weekend.
PHOTOGRAPHER AND FRIEND
Dedication not only shines through Gustafson’s photos but through his personality. Bill McRoberts, a friend of Gustafson and fellow photographer, speaks highly of his close friend. “Not only does he take amazing photos of rodeo contestants but he can tell you when each one of their birthdays are and is always sending them wishes on Facebook,” McRoberts said. Phillip Kitts, a current photographer for Cinch Shootout and owner of Avid Visual Imagery Rodeo Photography, said, “The first time I met Jerry it immediately felt like I was talking to a best friend”. Kitts also said that Gustafson has always been available to other photographers in helping sell their work or provide guidance.
In the midst of Gustafson’s glory, was born the famous photo of Barney Brehmer riding a bull in Sidney, Iowa in 1972. Taken at an unusual angle, Gustafson explained in this most favorable experience of all times that, “God told me to shoot from this angle in knowing it would be a success.” The emotions and adrenaline are beyond transparent in this photo, which was featured in many publications throughout the world of bull riding. “It is like he can read the mind of the animals as well as the contestants and knows when that shot is going to happen,” McRoberts said. “Anyone can capture a shot, but you have a special gift when you can capture that right moment”.
One very famous photo did not define the work of Gustafson, much of his photos can be appreciated by all the cowboys he got to photograph in the arena.
Garth Brooks, a famous country singer, showed his gratitude for Gustafson’s work by displaying the photos he took of Chis LeDoux at a memorial concert in New York. Acquainting himself with each cowboy he photographed, Gustafson got to know some of the most famous rodeo contestants of all time including Chris LeDoux, Ty Wallace and Lane Frost. Gustafson expressed his love for the relationships he has built with cowboys through the memories of the shenanigans at rodeos, the passion found within the sport and the cowboys love of the fans.
In preserving the history of the sport, Gustafson knows that his photos will live on, along with the stories of past world champion cowboys. McRoberts is grateful that Gustafson is willing to share his photos. “Jerry has furnished me with so many images at no cost because he knows I do it for Hall of Fame Organization and continuing on the history.”
Today, Gustafson resides in Byers, Colo., where he chose to settle down after he noticed that he was spending six months or more a year in Colorado photographing rodeos in 1975. He now works with McRoberts creating posters for the Bull Riding Hall of Fame, selling prints of his past work, networking with other photographers, and marketing his two coffee table portfolio books “Through the Lens of Jerry Gustafson: Bares, Broncs and Bulls, 1982-1988” and “Through the Lens of Jerry Gustafson; Rodeo Photography, 1970-1976.” These books are unique to each cowboy in the photos. His books are available for purchase through his website, gustafsonphoto.com. Next time you’re out at the rodeo, keep an eye out for Gustafson, who still lives for the cowboy legacies and action of the rodeo. ❖