It was the summer of 1965. I had been a very green staffer on Rupert Murdoch’s newly founded national daily, The Australian, for a mere three months, when I was assigned to cover the National Rodeo Championships in the New South Wales country town of Cootamundra.
Arriving early, after an early morning start and a 200 kilometre drive from Canberra, I approached the ring boss, to introduce myself. He was a rangy, tall, laconic cowboy straight out of central casting, Marlboro Man in an Akubra hat. I asked whether there might be a good vantage point I could use to photograph the action. My hope was that he might give me the OK to shoot from the announcer’s box high above the arena.
With the faintest shadow of a smile, he said, “Right here’s good?” We were standing in the centre of the arena, which in about half an hour would be a scene of bucking mayhem as bulls and broncos did their best to get rid of the cowboys on their backs. I managed a nervous, “You’re kidding aren’t you?” “Keep your eyes open and your wits about you and you should be OK.” He reassured me.
The first riders were called and as that gate slammed open, and the first horse exploded out into the arena, I couldn’t think about taking pictures. I was much too scared. When the ride was over, I realised that I had managed to stay out from under the hooves and survived. I began to think about taking photos. After the third or fourth horse I actually found I was beginning to enjoy myself. But there were still the bulls to come. But with each animal my confidence grew.
Because of the pace of the events there were often a couple of riderless horses or bulls in the arena at the same time as the one with a rider. You not only had to watch the action in front of the lens but have an awareness of what was going on behind you. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I found I developed a fairly certain awareness of where everything was and where to place myself to stay out of the way. There were a couple of near misses, but in the end it became all part of the excitement.
This picture turned up when I was going through some old prints the other day. It was taken with a 180mm lens. So what, you might think; a reasonably long telephoto. The thing is it was actually a 180mm Mamiya Sekor and it was on a 6×6(120) Mamiya C3 twin lens camera. To fill the frame on a 2 ¼ x2 ¼ inch negative you had to get quite close enough to make for an exciting afternoon, especially with nothing between you and all that plunging, bucking, thundering livestock.
The world is such an over-regulated place these days, the opportunity to get so up close to the action like this rarely occurs. Nowadays you’d have to shoot from behind the barrier and probably wear a hard hat and a high-visibility vest as well. It’s probably a good thing, but I can’t help but feel that in a society that seems to reject the notion of personal responsibily for one’s safety and actions, that so much of the enjoyment and excitement has been leached out of the press photographer’s job.