Photographer Ivan McClellan On Capturing The Beauty of Black Cowboys
This feature is in the December '22 "The Creators" Issue. Click here to subscribe.
Ahead of his second book (which will release in 2023), photographer Ivan McClellan details his journey of capturing the beauty of Black cowboys throughout the nation.
Jadayia Kursh photographed in Fort Smith, Ark., in 2021. Photographed by Ivan McClellan
The history of the Black cowboy is often forgotten, as it has long been depicted through a whitewashed lens. Kansas City, Kan., native Ivan McClellan made it a mission to not only document but reclaim the cowboy after a thrilling first-time experience at a Black rodeo in Okmulgee, Okla. Along with films like The Harder They Fall and Nope and visuals from artists like Lil Nas X, Solange, Beyoncé and Megan Thee Stallion, McClellan’s work revives history while also celebrating the cowboy’s current art form.
“Bobby Prince”, Boley, Okla. (2021) Photographed by Ivan McClellan
Your photography captures the beauty of various cowboys by bringing the ideal to modern day, rather than having the Black cowboy’s history remain stagnant in the past.
I thought Black cowboys were a myth. I knew Black folks rode horses, farmed and raised cattle, but the icon of the ‘cowboy’ was always a white man. Happening upon this vibrant culture completely disrupted this icon for me. I hope that when viewers see young cowboys and cowgirls with swagger wearing contemporary clothes and listening to hip-hop that they’ll have the same experience and the cowboy icon will be disrupted permanently.
Eric Bagby photographed in Okmulgee, Okla., in 2020. Photographed by Ivan McClellan
What are your thoughts on the recent ‘Yeehaw Agenda’ seen in the music and entertainment industry?
The first time I heard [Lil Nas X’s] ‘Old Town Road’ was at a Black rodeo in 2019. The crowd went nuts screaming the lyrics and dancing in the stands. It perfectly captured what was going on in this culture seamlessly merging trap and country. The Western visuals in Solange’s  When I Get Home film inspired me as a visual creative to dive deeper into this subject matter and make more intimate portraits.
“Pony Express Team,” Bristow, Okla. (2020) Photographed by Ivan McClellan
Since I started documenting this culture in 2015, the popularity of Black cowboys has exploded. To see the representation in movies like The Harder They Fall gives this community a sense of pride knowing that what they do every day is admired and celebrated. Since these films came out, I’ve seen a lot more spectators and press in attendance at rodeos and curiosity about the folks that compete in them. Fashion brands are riding the wave as well including Black cowboys and horse people in campaigns from Lee Jeans to Burberry.
“Cowboy Prayer,” Okmulgee, Okla. (2020). Photographed by Ivan McClellan
“IT’S IMPORTANT TO RECLAIM THIS IDENTITY THAT’S RIGHTFULLY OURS BECAUSE THE COWBOY IS SUCH A POWERFUL AMERICAN SYMBOL. SHOWING BLACK FACES UNDER COWBOY HATS ALIGNS BLACK FOLKS WITH OUR NOBLEST ATTRIBUTES.” -IVAN MCLELLAN
The late Ouncie Mitchell photographed in Crosby, Texas, in 2020 Photographed by Ivan McClellan
When I think of a cowboy, I think of freedom, strength, courage, independence and an American icon. When you add our Blackness on top of that, the framing becomes even more weighted.
Black cowboys are the backbone of this country. They represent the resilience to make something out of nothing. To compete in Western sports and feed the nation, these men and women have to overcome a lack of resources and deep-seated stereotypes that tell them they don’t belong. The folks I’ve met are some of the grittiest and most determined Americans. They will make it happen no matter what. I’ve seen rodeo athletes get their phone cut off to pay their rodeo fees and sleep in their car to get from one competition to the next. I’ve seen farmers and ranchers galvanize as a community and innovate on their products to overcome systemic racism and inequities in the commodities market. For generations this culture has continued to rise up with a boot on its back. Give them a pile of hay and they’ll spin it into gold.
The late Ouncie Mitchell photographed in Liberty, Texas, in 2022 Photographed by Ivan McClellan
“Pony Express Race,” Okmulgee, Okla. (2020). Photographed by Ivan McClellan
Scrawney Brooks in Liberty, Texas, 2022 Photographed by Ivan McClellan