Crackin’ Out


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.

Ronnie Tessler at the Rodeo in Lillooet or Clinton, circa 1977 | “Some guy came up to me and said, ‘you’re always taking photographs but no one takes the photographer’s picture.’ When I got home and developed the roll, I was really surprised at the quality of the photo – and that it’s in focus!”


“Crackin’ Out! – In rodeo, this expression is synonymous with beginning the new season, breaking out of the chute, or even breaking out new chaps. These explosive words epitomize for me the spirit of rodeo and the cowboy way of life.”

Ronnie Tessler

Before the Rodeo

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.

Cloverdale, BC | 1979 | “This is Bronc rider Gene Miller standing for the singing of ‘Oh Canada’ at the Cloverdale Rodeo. Cowboys traditionally hold their hat over their heart during the National anthem.”


Vernon, BC | 1979 | “Kids that young were called steer riders. They were like pre-bull riders and you could start them around the age of eight. It grabbed me that there were all these young boys emulating the old boys, and they all had such skill and fearlessness.”
Edmonton, AB | 1978 | “Indoor rodeos had a much different feel than the outdoor, rural performances, or perfs as the cowboys called them. It was much less intimate, nevertheless, it was still casual behind the chutes as you can see here: the riders are watching each other perform and/or waiting to gear up for their own ride.”


Clinton, BC | 1978 | “Jesse Hyland, facing us, later died in a steer riding accident. He was knocked against a chute and sadly passed away at the age of twelve. He was the only person I knew who died in the infield. They always liked to say it’s not a dangerous sport and that driving from rodeo to rodeo was more dangerous. I found that hard to believe after witnessing injury after injury, some gruesome. In retrospect though, more men I knew died in plane accidents than in the arena.”
A Bullfighter / clown at a bullring and bullfighting school outside Calgary, AB | c. 1978 | “Bullfighters’ jobs were to entertain the audience, and then when the rider came out, it was their job to help make the bull twist and buck harder to give the cowboy the best ride possible. Most importantly, they were there to distract the bull from a fallen rider or free them if they were caught in the rigging. The bullfighter used the barrel as protection, and would leap into or behind it if the bull was closing into fast to escape.This photo was taken at a school for bullfighters, but I don’t recallif he was a teacher or a student.”
“This is Ivan Daines, country singer and composer and former Canadian saddle bronc champion stretching before his ride.“
“Look at the size of that hat! Those chaps look like they are meant to grow with him — they are a bit long. You can see, even though he is incredibly young, that he already knows how to prep before a ride.”




Kamloops, BC | 1979 | “I wanted to show how they prepare themselves. The rigging bag would have all their stuff: a saddle, ropes, a change of shirt, tape, spurs, and their walking boots. They don’t have dressing rooms like hockey players. It’s a solitary sport and there are no coaches, no team. It’s up to you to prepare yourself and rev yourself up.”



Clinton, BC | circa 1977 | “Although I’ve forgotten his name, I remember that he was a bareback rider, hence the taping to strengthen his riding arm, which was jammed into a little hold like an old-fashioned suitcase handle. The other hand would be raised up in the air and there were no stirrups holding his feet.”

The Rodeo

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.

Cloverdale, BC | 1979 | “Cowboys were always trying to trick me to get on a horse or a bull. ‘Come on Ronnie, we’ll give you the easiest one’ [they’d say]. But I wasn’t going to fall for that; I saw how they coerced people to make a fool of themselves and then proceeded to tell that story for the next ten years. I never embarrassed myself like that. Nevertheless, the cowboys and I got along very well, we respected each other and had respect for the work we were each doing.”


Black Diamond, AB | 1979 | “This is an eerie photo for me to look at because that’s Calvin Bunney, a young bareback rider. He was on his way up. He did really well that year, but not on that particular ride. He got bucked off here. Unfortunately, on May 22 that year, he died in a plane crash en route to California from Cloverdale in BC.I knew everyone on that plane; the pilot was Brian Claypool – he was a real gentleman, and the first rider to get me to understand that they saw themselves as athletes. They mobilized a huge search to find them. It took about two years before a hunter finally spotted their remains. They are remembered to this day in the Canadian rodeo world.”



Merritt, BC | 1978 | “This is my friend Coleman Robinson. He’s a saddle bronc rider. Their challenge is that their feet are anchored in their stirrups but their arms are not. Their riding arm is holding the braided rope extended, and their other arm is free. Neither arm can touch their body or the horse or they’re disqualified. I wasn’t interested in capturing that beautiful form, I was more interested in capturing other elements of the ride.”
Williams Lake, BC | 1977 | “The cowboys loved this one. The guy got bucked off and landed in the muddy infield. It was not a photo a regular rodeo photographer would take, and it also wasn’t a photo the cowboys would have bought. They would want a photo of the decisive moment in their ride, not the behind the scenes stuff like this.”



John Quintana Bullriding School, Oregon | 1978 | “This is a novice rider at the John Quintana bull riding school in Oregon. John was a six-time Finals Competitor and a Champion. He died in 2013 in a plane crash.”

After The Rodeo

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.

Edmonton, AB | 1977 | “This is Ivan Daines and his first wife Kay. I stayed with them one year in Innisfail. At the time they had two kids, later three. This was the finals and Kay was preparing ice for him after his ride. I thought it spoke to how they had to take care of themselves. There was no such thing as a team doctor or physio-therapist in rodeo in those days.”



Vernon, BC | 1978 | “This is the late Ted Vayro with his daughter Sophie Vayro. He was former bareback riding champion and a major stock contractor in BC, so he provided animals for the rodeos. He looked like a Marlboro man, very good looking but he had no hair under that hat! He was a very kind man under all that gruffness and had a terrific sense of humour. I remember him being so proud of that baby — he loved that baby. Also, if Ted’s hand had not been on Sophie’s back it wouldn’t have shown the same tenderness; maybe in his expression, but his hand reinforces that tenderness. That’s what I love about documentary photography, people recording life as it’s happening.”
Alberta | c. 1977 | “This was about companionship for me. Cowboys loved to joke around and were great storytellers. The guys also liked to attract my attention and hoped I would take their photo. What’s striking is that since it’s a solitary sport – there’s no coach or team looking out for you – they share information with one another about the habits of the animals they’re going to ride even though they are competitors .”



Calgary, AB | 1978 | “There were many traditions in rodeo: you never threw your hat on the bed and they always put their hats crown down, in order to hold the shape of the brim (and wouldn’t you know it there’s two hats brim down!). Cowboys never wore yellow; and they never handled two dollar bills. I’m not sure, though, if any of these traditions hold today. That was my friend’s Debb’s place in Calgary. She goes by Deborah now. We let a few younger guys with little money stay with us. They took us out to dinner at the Keg as a thank you. They bought a bottle of sweetish wine with a screw top. They thought they were so sophisticated. Debb and I had a good laugh. We’re still friends;she’s a retired chartered accountant and ultramarathon runner. You’ll notice one of the hats has a feather, that was probably Debb’s hat. She rode bulls in those days.”



The Film

Director’s Statement:

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.”

Launch Event

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.


Special Thanks to

Ronnie Tessler


And to

Marcy Babins

Susanna Barlow

Ciaran Boyle

Ryan Clough-Carroll

Brenda Crabtree

Julia Cundari

Isaac Forsland

Toni-Lynn Frederick

Carlito Ghioni

John Goldsmith

Liana Glass

Jonathan Gough

Celia Haig-Brown

Yvonne Houssin

Bill Jeffries

Gabe Kelly

Hazel Meyer

Michael CS Murphy

Tug Phipps

Dale Rechner

Coleman Robinson

Alysa Routtenberg

Devan Scott

Joleen Seitz

Adrian Stimson

Cicely Switzer

April Thompson

Vladimir Ulovec

Sophie Vayro

Nicholas Villanueva

Brandon Wettig

William F. Whites

Jasper Wrinch






Miss Piggy




Sponsorship Provided by



PrintMaker Studio



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.