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50 Years Of Rodeo Photography - A Career Behind The Camera

Bronson Teichert

On the walls of James Fain’s Logan home are framed photographs, shots of rodeo cowboys roping a steer, broncos bucking in mid-air, red-nosed clowns being chased by a bull. Fifty years of memories that represent a career for James, known by his friends as Jim.

Now in his eighties, Jim said those years of traveling the country to capture the perfect cowboy photo have been some of his best, despite the technical challenges of using a camera to take a shot of a cowboy's face, straining to stay in the saddle once he leaves the shoot.

“I got interested in rodeo back when I was in grade school,” Fain said. “I entered a junior rodeo in Phoenix, you were supposed to be twelve and I think I was about twelve and half so I fibbed and got into the calf riding. It was a classmate that talked me into it. From then on, I couldn’t stay away from rodeo.

“I used to look through the Western Horseman magazines. There was a guy that was doing most of, or a lot of the rodeo photography back in the late 40’s, 50’s, back into the 60’s. I just thought that was kind of a neat thing to do and somehow I ended up with a little box camera and started taking a few photos around junior rodeos in Phoenix.

“Had some images published in the Rodeo Sports News in the summer of 61’. So I claim that my rodeo photography career started then when I first had some images published. I was 19 when I had those images first printed in the Rodeo Sports News.

“It’s pretty physical, then you’re up and down the fence when stock comes your way. People think the bulls are the worst but they’re not. Most rodeos, I shoot with a long telephoto lens so I’ve got plenty of time to anticipate animals coming my way. Sometimes a bucking horse will come by and people say, ‘oh that was close wasn’t it?’ I say, ‘well it isn’t close unless they touch and they’ve never touched me.’ They brush by me pretty close sometimes, all part of the game, another day at the office.

“The bucking stock, a lot of them have a pretty much-set pattern. If I know the stock I can set up where I can get the best result. Bar-T rodeo has one particular paint mare that bucks the same pattern. She’ll come around to the left in a circle. So I can position myself out where I can maximize the number of shots I can get. On a good ride, in eight seconds if the horse is jumping and kicking strong, I can get eight sometimes ten good shots. Almost every jump they take. Other horses aren’t as predictable and you have to anticipate more action out of them.

“What we’re doing has no security at all but we’ve done well, we’ve kept our bills paid. We’ve raised three kids and they all turned out good so we can’t complain how it’s worked out.”

For Cowboy photographer Jim Fain, county and state fair season makes for a busy time, and like the professional athletes he shoots, he travels the circuit hiding behind the lens of his digital camera at more than 30 rodeos a year. During those 50 years of focusing on photography, Fain has learned the art of using a computer to alter colors and enhance his subject. Before going digital, he used chemicals to control his prints, a process that affected his health, giving him that raspy voice that sounds so good when he shares his story of capturing cowboys through that camera of his.