“An America where we can be whatever we want to be” : Luke Gilford provides space for the queer rodeo community
After discovering how homophobic American rodeos can be, the book – published by Damiani – is a personal quest to break down these longstanding tribal dichotomies.
- Ayla Angelos
- 9 October 2020
Looking back, Luke Gilford’s earliest memories are from the rodeo. The American photographer grew up in Colorado in a small mountain town called Evergreen – his father was in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys association and he’d often head with him to take in the surroundings. “The rodeo is a performance that certainly influenced my understanding of power and the fragility of life,” he tells It’s Nice That. “It is also incredibly visual – people and animals illuminated by golden light; peaks and valleys of pastel landscapes; bleached hair and lipstick; leather denim and dirt. In some ways, I was documenting the rodeo before I even knew what a camera was.”
It was during these trips that Luke would observe the faces of the rodeo attendees, formulating his own stories based on the person’s expressions and gestures. “I would ask lots of questions too,” he adds, “I was very curious and love to connect with anyone who would talk to me.” This inquisitive mind was nurtured once he’d picked up a camera for the first time in high school as a means of telling narratives – not just for the world but also for himself. After studying art at UCLA, soon enough he’d mastered the skill and technique needed to excel in his medium; his works have been exhibited globally in the likes of MoMa in New York and Foam in Amsterdam, with campaigns shot for Valentino, Apple and Mercedes Benz, and work featured widely in The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Vogue.
Most recently, Luke’s portfolio has seen the addition of National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo, an intimate documentation of America’s queer rodeo, published by Damiani. Luke’s reasoning behind the project stems from two key influences: the first being his inherent inspiration from the queer community and need for survival, as well as the cherished moments he has of attending the rodeo with his father. The latter being one that he remembers "drifting” away from, particularly for the fact that he started to notice how homophobic it could be.
Luke speaks of the moment that he first discovered the subculture of a queer rodeo community at a Pride event in Northern California, just before Trump was elected as the president. “While the country is becoming increasingly divided and polarised, here is this world that is so inclusive and intersectional – a community the embraces both ends of the American cultural spectrum,” he says, noting how this was something that he felt was “urgently needed” as a means of showing proof of a different way of living: “a side to America that we have always heard about but haven’t really seen; an America where we can be whatever we want to be – even if you’re a black, queer, gender non-conforming bull rider – you are welcomed and accepted as family.”
In this sense, National Anthem is his own personal quest to provide necessary space for America’s queer rodeo community. Within the book, his subjects range from queer rodeo contestants to volunteers and spectators, each shot with such eloquence and tenderness that could only have been achieved through a certain level of trust formed along the way. He speaks of a favoured portrait of Priscilla Toya Bouvier in Colorado as one that has always stood out. Posing with a “stormy sunset” in the background, Priscilla was Miss International Gay Rodeo in 2019 and has been one of his consistent subjects throughout. “Priscilla grew up in a conservative family in New Mexico and spent the majority of her life closeted,” says Luke, explaining how Priscilla graduated from New Mexico State University on a Rodeo scholarship, and then University of New Mexico with a Masters in the Science of Agriculture. Priscilla came out later on in life and now lives with her partner on their ranch in New Mexico along with her children – Angelina who is 24 and Lilian who is 22 – and grandchild Esperanza, who is two. “Priscilla competes in calf roping, chute dogging, speed events and she is typically in drag at the rodeo,” Luke says. “Her presence is dignified, and I think her strength and pride are especially translated in this portrait of her, with her piercing gaze and glittering crown against the dramatic Colorado sky.”
With an aim to break down America’s longstanding “tribal dichotomies” with promising hope and resilience, think of National Anthem as a great reminder for us all – one that involves inspiration to expand and disrupt these binaries and conservative viewpoints. “This is a nation that is constantly failing as well as exceeding its own mythology,” says Luke. “I hope this project is a testament to the multiplicity of identities that intersect here – all of whom are deserving of respect, dignity, safety and love.”
“One of my close friends in the queer rodeo community is a black, queer, gender non-conforming bull rider,” he finally goes on to say. “They said to me simply: ‘If I show up here, I’m a cowboy.’ And they are accepted as such, with no questions asked. To me this project is a way of memorialising the rare beauty in that.”
'National Anthem' by Luke Gilford is published by Damiani at £50
GalleryLuke Gilford: National Anthem: America's Queer Rodeo
Luke Gilford: National Anthem (Copyright © Luke Gilford)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.