The flash has gone out: Longtime legendary rodeo photographer passes
Jim Svoboda, former contestant and long-time Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association photographer, died on Feb. 19 at the age of 88 years.
The Ord, Neb. man took over 3 million photos in his lifetime, photographing thousands of rodeo performances, the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, over 100 various PRCA Circuit Finals, the College National Finals, the Miss Rodeo America pageant, the Bucking Horse and Bull Sale held during the National Finals Rodeo, the Bill Pickett National Finals, the National Senior Pro Rodeo Association, and the National Little Britches Rodeo Finals.
Born in 1934 to James Sr. and Marge Svoboda, one of 11 children on their small farm, he didn’t begin rodeo competition till he was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He competed in the bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, steer wrestling and bull riding. But he didn’t compete much; money was tight, and his weekends were spent doing chores at the university’s beef department.
After college graduation in 1956, he began work for the USDA as the county executive officer for the Agriculture Stabilization Conservation Service.
On the weekends, he competed at pro rodeos and amateur rodeos. But a badly broken leg in 1974 ended his rodeo competition.
THE START OF A NEW CAREER
It was then he was able to focus on rodeo photography. He had been taking pictures, but began in earnest then.
He wore out nearly 40 cameras, all Nikons, and has cataloged each of his photos, in the Svoboda basement: shelves with 1,000 pounds of negatives and 2,000 pounds – one ton – of proof books.
After he retired from the ASCS office in 1988, he and Marilyn, who had also picked up a camera, traveled even more, taking photos at rodeos across the country.
After a five-way bypass heart surgery in 2011, the doctor recommended he walk. After that, he walked from two to 20 miles daily, using the treadmill if the weather was bad. He won the 80-plus age division at his first marathon, accompanied by his granddaughters, at the age of 87.
In his young adult days, Svoboda helped start the rodeo club at the University of Nebraska, was part of a group of five contestants that began the Nebraska State Rodeo Association, serving as secretary for over 20 years; and was an avid blackjack player. He helped the grandkids learn how to play, insisting that it helped them learn math skills.
He was kind-hearted and easy to get along with, said fellow photographer Jerry Gustafson. “Jim and Marilyn are a couple of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Gustafson said. “He had the respect of the entire rodeo community.” They first met in the early 1970s, and Gustafson helped the Svobodas shoot the National Little Britches Rodeo Finals.
He was an inspiration and encouragement to his fellow rodeo photographers and helped some of them get started in the business.
One of those photographers, Alaina Stangle, Philip, S.D., met Svoboda when her dad was judging the Burke (S.D.) Stampede in 2015.
“When I was starting to get interested in rodeo photography and starting my own business, he saw something in me and he wanted to help me get started out right,” she said. “He mentored me, and I am honored that he thought highly enough of me to invite me to his hometown of Burwell, to shoot the historic Nebraska’s Big Rodeo with him.”
Svoboda was kind, too. “He was a selfless, generous, humble and hardworking person,” Stangle said, “a rancher, cowboy, family man and rodeo photographer. Jim and Marilyn have been good friends to me. They are some of the kindest people I know. I can’t thank them enough for their support.”
After retirement, he and Marilyn logged 80,000 miles yearly, going to rodeos. He’s taken pictures at rodeos in all corners of the U.S.: from Cowtown, N.J., to Kissimmee, Fla., and from Omak, Wash., to south Texas.
The couple took hundreds of high school senior photos and wedding photos, too.
He and Marilyn have three children: sons Von (Angie), who lives in Ord; daughter Tana Brinkman (Jim), who live near Ericson, Neb., and son JB (Anne Marie) who live in Springfield, Mo. He has seven grandchildren, and he and Marilyn attended as many of their activities as they could.
Von and Angie’s kids are Cade, Cole and Cora; Tana and Jim’s kids are Sarah and Sam; JB and Anne Marie’s kids are Maggie and Marley.
“The cool part of my dad was,” Von said, “that when Cade and Cole rodeoed, and Cora played ball, he would jump in with us and go everywhere. If Cade had a (college) wrestling meet in Missouri, dad would jump in and go. We got a lot of quality time with dad.”
He loved to go along with daughter Tana when she showed goats as well. “He’d ride along and help her,” Von said. “Compared to a lot of kids with their dad, I got to spend so many hours on the road with him.”
As a photographer, he was diligent about cataloging each photo with the who/what/when and where details. He could retrieve any photo, if he knew the name of the rodeo, the contestant, and the year it was taken.
The 3 million negatives in his collection will eventually be donated to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Marilyn said.
Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell was near and dear to his heart. He attended as a kid and competed there, too. He wrote a book entitled, “50 Years of Nebraska’s Big Rodeo” and was chosen as the Co-Grand Marshal of the Burwell rodeo in 2022.
Jim won the 1984 PRCA Sports News Best Action Photo, the 2007 PRCA Best Action Rodeo Photo; and the 2008 PRCA Best in Photo Journalism Award. He and his brother Dale were inducted into the 2016 Nebraska Sandhills Cowboy Hall of Fame.
In addition to their three children and seven grandchildren, he and Marilyn have four great-grandchildren.
Von said his dad lived a full life.
“He’d got all the tread out of his tires,” he said. “He covered a pretty good trail.”
A private graveside service will be held in the future. Memorials can be made to the family, which will be collectively donated in his honor to Nebraska’s Big Rodeo in Burwell.