When a Pasadena policeman handed Norman Mauskopf a traffic ticket in June of 1983, little could Mauskopf have then guessed it would lead to a 2 1/2-year, 28,000-mile odyssey chasing after rodeos across the country and a book called "Rodeo."
Indeed, little could the bearded, soft-spoken Mauskopf have then predicted that this ticket would eventually cause him to drop a growing commercial photography career in order to take to the back-roads of America and go from rodeo to rodeo, living like a cowboy.
However, before this story get ahead of itself, back to the ticket.
It was just after the policeman gave Mauskopf the ticket that he found himself despondently listening to an ad on his car radio for a Fourth of July rodeo at the Rose Bowl. Mauskopf, a 35-year-old Pasadena photographer who teaches at Art Center College of Design, figured that maybe this was just the thing he needed to boost his spirits. So he put the car into gear and drove to the Rose Bowl to talk with the rodeo promoter about securing a photographer's pass to the event.
"And even at that early point, the first thing that struck me was how easy getting the pass was," Mauskopf recently recalled, now back from his extended stay on the range. "I had tried to get press passes to sporting events in the past, and it was just like banging my head against a wall. But with this rodeo producer, we just shook on it and that was it."
Armed With Press Pass
Thus when July 4 arrived, Mauskopf headed out to the Rose Bowl rodeo armed with his press pass and a camera. However, what he envisioned as a rather pleasant but hokey sporting even turned out to be a robust celebration of all things all-American, a two-fisted saddle-and-spur spectacle that exploded like a circus carnival but also showcased the courage and cunning of a bunch of fellows named cowboys.
Here rough-and-tumble young men moved with balletic grace and awesome strength. The rules were not so neatly laid out as in team sports such as baseball and basketball. Competition was in large measure an inner struggle, each man pitted against himself as much as he was against another man. Mauskopf, a Washington, D.C., native who at one time worked as an economist at the Federal Reserve Board, saw all this and was hooked.
"Although I did watch 'Hee-Haw' and had a closet interest in country music that was it. That is . . . I never wanted to be a cowboy. But when I saw this rodeo I was amazed at the passion and spectacle. It was the Fourth of July and here were all these cowboys, a group of clean-cut, tough, good-looking all-American guys . . . and there was this great spirit about it all. There was a country band playing and probably about 50,000 people watching it all go on. I just got this feeling about the rodeo. It was something I wanted to know more about."
Rodeo Fever Rekindled
Several weeks later, when Mauskopf developed the film shot at the Rose Bowl, his rodeo fever was rekindled by a picture of three cowboys standing in white light who looked as if they were hewn out of marble. "After ten years of photography I realized I finally had a picture that was worth something. I had never felt like that before . . . never." And the more Mauskopf looked at the photo, the more he felt compelled to follow the rodeo and see how these modern cowboys lived. If at some point a publisher was interested in putting together a book of the photos he would take while riding the rodeo circuit, that would be fine. But in Mauskopf's mind, the book was secondary to the undeniable need he felt to experience rodeo life.
So gradually, cautiously, he began hanging out at rodeos, first at one in Santa Barbara then another in Bishop. And eventually Mauskopf came to realize that his rodeo obsession was bigger than the state of California. He had to travel to the very heart of cowboy country--to Arizona, Texas, Colorado--if he really was to know the rhythms and turns of this sport.
But this was easier said than done.
First, his friends and photography clients feared that Mauskopf had taken leave of his senses, and plainly told him so. His career was kicking into high gear and here he was, dropping everything to trek after a bunch of guys in Levis and leather.
But Mauskopf would not be deterred and he took to the road, following rodeos from town to town.
Cordial but Distant
The first few months the ropers, bull riders and bronco busters were cordial but distant. "I suppose in the beginning they just tolerated me," Mauskopf said. However, the more time he spent around the cowboys, the more they began accepting him. And as the months passed into years, Mauskopf found himself learning cowboy ways, not by observing but by doing. "I was getting into it. There was something in me that came out. I had a real affinity for it and for Western culture. I had never really traveled out West. And here I was, driving all over that part of the country. And it was something I liked . . . traveling by car. Rodeo affords you endless opportunity to travel the back-roads across the United States."
Living rodeo style also afforded Mauskopf the opportunity to bed down in unusual places. "I slept in fairgrounds and I slept in bunk houses. I slept in basements and I slept many a night in the back-seat of a car. That's a big part of going from rodeo to rodeo . . . traveling to a destination and not knowing where you're going to sleep. There are little towns like Sidney, Iowa, where there are no motels and you have to sleep where you can find it. Someone call rodeoing an eight-second life style, which is also how long you have to stay on an animal to qualify, and it's true."
Mauskopf also found himself taking chances he wouldn't have taken in Los Angeles. "I even tried steer wrestling," he recalled with a dubious grin. Though Mauskopf found steer wrestling easier than he expected, he quickly added it's not something he'd want to for a livelihood.
"Rodeoing is a hard way of life. I've seen guys stepped on, having internal injuries, and six to eight months later they're competing again." He paused and shook his head. "I saw a steer wrestler killed in Arizona when his foot got caught in the stirrup and he got dragged. I've even heard of guys being held together with piano wire and other guys who had their eyes taped open so they could compete. There were times when I've seen guys get stuck on their horses and get dragged around the arena and beat up against the fence and flop around like a rag doll. But they'd get up and walk away."
A small art publisher in Pasadena, Twelvetrees Press, recently published a limited edition of 5,000 hardbound books containing 70 photographs taken by Mauskopf chronicling the rodeo life. While proud of the book, Mauskopf is quick to say the real reward was taking a sizeable chunk out of his life to live like a rodeo cowboy. 'The photography was really a way to experience rodeo life for myself."
Indeed, having thrown himself into rodeo cowboying, Mauskopf feels he has acquired invaluable insight into himself and man's indomitable nature. For he has learned, as Hemingway put it, that man can be defeated but not destroyed.
"The cowboys have a saying of how you're supposed to act when things get bad in or out of the arena. You're supposed to 'cowboy up.' That means if you're down you're supposed to get back up on your feet and face the problem." Mauskopf's voice dropped lower but grew stronger in tone. "When I went out to follow the rodeo, and I figure that I've now been to more than 130 rodeos, I pulled the rug out from under my commercial photography career. But that's OK, because I feel that having lived with the rodeo cowboys and witnessed their courage again and again, I now can say 'cowboy up,' too, no matter what happens in my life."