Ronnie Tessler began her career as a documentary photographer in 1973. She worked on numerous photography projects, exhibiting her work in Canada and the United States through 1990. Her artwork resides in a number of public collections, including the National Archives of Canada, the Canada Council Art Bank, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, and the Jewish Museum and Archives of BC.
Tessler landed at VIEW (Vancouver Image Exhibition Workshop) in the early 1970s and met members Gerry Altman (z”l), Vlad Ulovec and Tom Knott. Together, they visited The Williams Lake Rodeo in July, 1976, a new experience in photography for all four friends, and one that Tessler remembers vividly to this day. The group worked together for a year, and with the permission of the Canadian Cowboys Rodeo Association produced an exhibit at the Finals Rodeo in Edmonton in 1977. Tessler worked independently for the next two years documenting life at the rodeos throughout the west, from BC to Manitoba and into the American Northwest of Washington, Oregon and California.
Tessler sought objectivity but understood that it was not fully attainable.
“As a photographer at the rodeo, my goal was to remove myself as much as possible. I did not want the people I was photographing to interact with me; I wanted them to focus on what they were doing. That being said, I am aware that the photograph doesn’t exclude me and I’ve made myriad decisions in the process. But at the end of the day my goal was to give them the biggest chance possible to speak for themselves, and for me, that’s really what documentary photography is all about.”
Through her photography, Tessler worked to capture the nuances and dynamics of the rodeo environment and the lifestyle that came with it, illustrating not just the sport itself, but the rich community built up around it.
This exhibit is grouped into three chapters: Before The Rodeo; The Rodeo; and After The Rodeo. Throughout, photographs are accompanied by Tessler’s commentary: her stories, observations, and explanations.
A short film accompanies the exhibit, welcoming seven additional voices to share their reflections on Tessler’s images, contextualizing the photos within a range of intersecting issues and topics. Among these voices are a stock contractor, a curator, a child of rodeo, a cowboy, an artist, a professor, and the archives intern who processed the collection. Hearing these voices, we are reminded of the many interpretations any single image can inspire. Find the film below.
In an effort to record the moments of rodeo that had often gone undocumented, Tessler started shooting well before the main event. Her images capture the cheerful anticipation of the crowd and the tense preparation of the cowboys. We see in this collection the many ways in which cowboys motivated and centred themselves in the moments before facing off against the clock and the animals.
To enlarge any photograph, simply click on it.
Tessler sought to capture what renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of as “The Decisive Moment.” John Suler, professor of psychology offers the following definition for this term: “the moment when the visual and psychological elements of people in a real life scene spontaneously and briefly come together in perfect resonance to express the essence of that situation.” This pursuit is evident in Tessler’s rodeo series.
In her efforts to achieve this, Tessler never used long lenses, which would have allowed her to capture her subjects from far away. Instead, by using short lenses, Tessler could place herself close to her subjects and be ready to capture small details like facial expressions and the reactions of the animals. She embedded herself in her environments, making an effort to be invisible. Over time, she developed an educated intuition and could situate herself in the right place to capture the decisive moment.
Capturing the context of a scene was another important aim in her work. She included the audience, the mountains and the occasional Ferris wheel in her photos. Tessler wanted to represent what was happening as it happened, in an effort to achieve something close to an honest record of a specific way of life.
Tessler was engrossed with the entirety of rodeo. After the events wound down, a sense of accomplishment and relaxation would take over, and at times a raucous party would follow. Over her time interacting with the rodeo community, Tessler developed friendships with cowboys, their wives, and other members of the scene. As such, she was often invited along to the ensuing festivities. This last section portrays the post-rodeo lull and cheer, an element as inherent to rodeo culture as any saddle bronc ride or barrel race, yet seldom recorded with the same intent or value.
Crackin’ Out: The Ronnie Tessler Collection is a short documentary that expands on the legacy of Ronnie Tessler’s rodeo photography by exploring a multitude of perspectives on rodeo. One photograph does not illustrate one idea. By speaking with eight different people, my aim was to bring their collection of voices together to elucidate an ever-shifting narrative of an image. This film offers a brief glance at some of the distinct and disparate angles that create a multifaceted and at times conflicted understanding of Western Canadian Rodeo.
I endeavoured with this film to present aspects of rodeo frequently left untold, specifically its importance to Indigenous people, women and LGBTQ+ communities.
It should be noted that much like Tessler’s inherent presence in capturing these photographs, my subjectivity in curating them is unavoidable. I am an unreliable witness who, six months ago, had never set foot at a rodeo, so my bias as an outsider is present throughout.
– Sarah Genge, April 2021
“Looking back, I’m pretty happy with these photos, that I was able to make such lasting images in my first attempt at a major project. They had good circulation. The Glenbow circulated them for five years, and they were shown in other galleries, including the Presentation House Gallery. So it was very confirming. And many of the people I met are still good friends.”
A launch event for Crackin’ Out: The Ronnie Tessler Rodeo Collection was held on April 21, 2021. The event included the debut screening of the short film, Crackin’ Out, a virtual walkthrough of the exhibit, and a discussion between photographer Ronnie Tessler and curator/director Sarah Genge, facilitated by JMABC Director of Community Engagement Michael Schwartz.
View the full event below.
This exhibit and film were produced by Sarah Genge under the supervision of Michael Schwartz.
Michael CS Murphy
William F. Whites
Pippa Emrick at Talisman Farm
Billy Konyk at Stampede Tack & Western Wear
Mike MacSorley & Jamie Rogers at Cloverdale Rodeo
Alysa Routtenberg at Leonoff-Routtenberg family farm
Haley Rutherford at Lazy L Ranch
Westway Feed & Hay
All locations filmed on the ancestral, unceded traditional lands of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səlil̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh), nɬeʔképmx (Nlaka’pamux), and Syilx (Okanagan) Peoples
This exhibit and film were made possible through the generous support of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Vancouver, the Government of Canada, and generous private donors.