Imagista recently bumped into Jeff Berlin at a gallery opening in LA. The serendipitous run-in led to our feature of his new project, Cowboy Christmas, a combination of his two passions, photography and flying, and his first foray into rodeo.

Imagista: What was the initial inspiration behind this project or body of work?

Jeff Berlin: Really, I kind of fell into rodeo. An airplane company named Cirrus called and asked if I’d like to pick up an airplane from the factory in Minnesota and fly a pro rodeo cowboy to rodeos for a week and make a story about it. I was living in NYC at the time and rodeo was pretty foreign to me, so I thought why not? Turns out that the week leading up to the July 4th holiday is called Cowboy Christmas. It’s the busiest week of the year for rodeo, and it was the week we flew the circuit. I was literally flying from Wyoming to Arkansas and then to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, in the middle of nowhere, in one day, and we flew like that, crisscrossing the U.S. for seven days. It was exhausting. Still, I fell in love with rodeo; it is achingly photogenic.

Imagista: What do you (or did you) you love about this project?

JB: I loved that rodeo was, to me, a totally new world, an American subculture that I had never experienced before. And that’s also one of the things I love about photography. It gives one entry into new worlds. Rodeo is the history of the American West, is visually compelling, and still has a sense of innocence compared to the extreme commercialism of spectator sports like baseball, football, tennis, NASCAR, etc…

Imagista: For how long, or over what time period, did this project go on?

JB: This project is ongoing. It’s become a passion project and is still in development.

Imagista: Are there any other additional plans with this project?

JB: Eventually I would love for it to become a book. It’s my documentary/fine art project so a gallery show of select images would also be amazing.

Imagista: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about this project?

JB: People always wonder about the welfare of the animals. There are more rules in the rodeo rulebook concerning treatment of the animals than there are for the human participants. Really, the bulls and bucking horses that we see in the arena are considered athletes themselves.They are scored during their events and at the end of the year, awarded for exemplary performances. If I felt that the animals were abused in any way, I couldn’t support and promote this sport like I do.

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