Ivan McClellan's celebratory photography tells the stories of black cowboys in America
The Portland-based photographer discovered a community of black cowboys around six years ago. Since then, he's been documenting the culture through a considered and caring lens.
Six years ago, Ivan McClellan was invited to a black rodeo by a filmmaker named Charles Perry. It was a transformative moment for Ivan, having seen thousands of black men and women riding horses, donning cowboy boots and hats for the very first time. "I didn't know anything about black cowboys at the time," he tells Creative Boom.
Ivan grew up in Kansas City in a mix of urban and countryside settings; he'd pick berries and catch wild flies in the back garden – a five-acre field – while avoiding police and gangs in the front. At age 17, Ivan left Kansas City to work as an actor and designer before discovering photography. His entrance into the medium was around ten years ago, and he hasn't looked back since. And what began as a study into landscapes to get his "technical skills up" soon transitioned into street photography. "I got good at interacting with strangers and getting quality shots in any environment," he explains.
After he visited the black rodeo with Charles, Ivan commenced his documentary practice focusing on black cowboys in America. It's a subject and event he holds closely; when he attended, he met people who lived just blocks away from his childhood home in Kansas City.
"This knowledge of black cowboys in my hometown transformed my perception of home away from a place of poverty and violence to a place of independence and grit," he says. "I was determined to share what I'd found and let everyone know that black cowboys exist now, today, in America." Ivan has now attended dozens of rodeos and visited cowboys at their ranches and farms; he'll "realistically" be shooting rodeos until he's 70, he admits.
Ivan pairs staged and poised portraiture throughout the project with the more candid, fluid and dynamic shots of people mid-ride as they gallop through the sand. One of those is Kortnee Solomon, an 11-year-old cowgirl he'd met at her ranch in Hampstead, Texas. "There was a storm rolling in, and she told me it would start raining in six minutes," says Ivan.
"I rushed to get a shot and asked her to ride her horse right by me as I sat by the ground. I took a shot of her on her white horse, with her braids blowing in the wind and an easy but focused expression on her face. It is one of my favourite photos because it captures her essence as a western athlete perfectly."
Ivan's photography is utterly revealing about his subject matter. He's apt in capturing both a moment and feeling, evoking a sense of warmth and care in the imagery – he wants to represent them for who they are and celebrate their culture.
"I had a great time capturing all these photos and have been embraced by this culture," he explains. "I'm always nervous when I start to shoot, but these genuine and warm people always put me at ease and give me the confidence to capture their lives. I hope that people feel the emotion and care that I've taken with the photography and the stories."