Whitehot Magazine

Ivan McClellan's Eight Seconds: A Culture Illuminated

Ivan McClellan, Cowboy Prayer. Courtesy of the artist.

By VICTOR SLEDGE, June 2022 

Once, when walking through a museum where his work was set to be shown soon thereafter, photographer Ivan McClellan remembered, “It was just white cowboy after white cowboy.” 

Then, 43 pieces of his work, all centered around the often unseen black cowboy culture across the United States, were set to show at that museum. He started to think, “This is going to challenge a lot of perceptions,” and that’s exactly what it’s like to experience McClellan’s Eight Seconds. 

Eight Seconds—the amount of time a bull rider has to stay on a bull to earn points in a rodeo—is a photography series McClellan somewhat fell into after attending his first black rodeo in 2015.

“When I saw these black men wrestling steer, riding bulls, and roping calves, it immediately harkened back to slavery,” he explains. “This makes me uncomfortable,” he remembers thinking.“But then, a rider came out carrying the Pan-African flag, and a woman sang the mess out of Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 

The strands of contentious history that ran through the rodeo were not lost on him, but it was this moment, as the rider slowly and proudly paraded the flag around the rodeo as the singer belted the Black National Anthem, that changed McClellan’s perception.

“The singer sang with such sincerity that although I’d heard that song thousands of times, I really listened to it. That resonated with me,” he says.

McClellan has managed to take this moment, where this seemingly damaging history was turned on its head right before his eyes, and bring his audience into the same experience in Eight Seconds. 

Ivan McClellan, Kortnee Solomon Braiding Mane. Courtesy of the artist.

Eight Seconds combines a boundless wealth of artistic and historical merit, simply illuminating narratives by giving audiences a look into the culture, up close and personal. All at once, McClellan is telling the story not just of the people he photographs but also their animals and the land around them. He does so in a way that welcomes his viewers into the spirit, community, and rush of what it is to be at a black rodeo and its ancillary experiences. McClellan’s work seems to put people, animals, and land in conversation with one another, but, in actuality, his work simply lets us listen in on a conversation that’s already been happening for centuries, a conversation that’s been humming under the noise of misperception and underrepresentation for just as long. 

“If I’m setting the scene,” McClellan imagines, “the people and animals are the characters, and the land is the stage.” McClellan’s attention to these entities in his work makes them feel inextricable from each other. The way he honors the relationship between people, animals, and land in his work reconfigures a narrative that has historically dominated thoughts around not just cowboys, but also black Americans’ relationships with these entities, especially the land. 

After centuries of a complicated, forced, and abusive relationship with the land, void of any agency, Eight Seconds shows a more harmonious, intentional and tender relationship with black people and the land they’re on. With some of the people owning the land they’re photographed on in the series, and with others nurturing that relationship through rodeo, you can’t help but feel a certain respect for the land in Eight Seconds, both from McClellan and the people in his work. 

He’s able to let that respect shine in his work in such an earnest way because of his personal commitment to  integrating himself, in a genuine way, into the culture. And from that, McClellan’s work carries a certain unmistakeable authenticity. He captures this rich culture with a sincerity that almost surrenders to the essence of black cowboy culture. Sometimes, his photos seem so raw that you can almost smell the glory racing through the rodeos – and all the farmland and animals that are a part of it. In Eight Seconds, the culture guides McClellan’s storytelling, not the other way around. 

Ivan McClellan, Bullriders in Rosenberg, Texas. Courtesy of the artist.

In a culture so raucous—bulls, race horses, roaring crowds—McClellan’s work still captures the calm of the chaos. Even in his action shots of a bucking bull or horses rounding a barrel, McClellan seems to always find the stillness in motion. His ability to strip down even the most hectic moments in these spaces reveals a rushed beauty otherwise so easily missed within rodeo. The tension in a bull’s body as it jerks around, the pensive focus on a cowboy’s face right before wrangling a calf—it all carries a graceful weight in McClellan’s photos that amplifies the song and dance between the people and their animals. 

Even the softer, more vulnerable photos in the series lay the pride and grit of cowboy culture down to pick up the relaxed, composed side of the culture you can’t always see in the heated, organized chaos of a rodeo. It may be a photo capturing a quiet moment between a father and his son, a whole family standing together on their land or a prayer circle before the start of a rodeo. These photos may juxtapose the rowdy image of a rodeo, but they aren’t two sides of a spectrum. They’re two sides of the same coin.  

That’s something McClellan does well in the series. He captures the totality of what it is to experience a rodeo, to live in connection to land and animals, to celebrate a complicated history in an extraordinary way, and he brings it all together to create and highlight these stories, allowing for a fuller and richer representation than black cowboy culture has sometimes been afforded in the past. Through McClellan’s work, it’s easy to see that the idea of a “cowboy” as we once knew it is now sprawling and boundless, defined by culture, tradition, and community, rather than by race, history, or gender.

Ivan McClellan, Pony Express Race II. Courtesy of the artist.

“I'm not trying to skew perceptions in any way,” McClellan explains. “I'm just showing things how they are.” 

And with that, the series celebrates black cowboy culture in a way that doesn’t fight against under- or misrepresentation, but rather focuses on simply telling the narrative that’s already there. A narrative that has existed and been revered on its own, independent of how it may be represented (or not) in mainstream media. Eight Seconds carefully archives a living, breathing culture and the blood pumping through it, which may have been hard to experience otherwise. With this work, McClellan’s audience is able to feel the pulse of this world and its warmth in a real, honest way.

In dealing with the history inherent to the culture McClellan so masterfully captures, where many skills displayed in the competitions may have once been forced upon enslaved peoples, McClellan says, “Now, they’re doing it for their own entertainment and profit. This is a celebration of those skills. This is honoring our ancestors in a way they probably could have never imagined.”

McClellan will be exhibiting photographs from Eight Seconds at the Portland Art Museum in July, as well as the Harwood Museum Taos, Tucson Museum of Art, and Lumber Room Portland this October.  

You can learn more about Ivan McClellan and his work on his website: www.eightsecs.com or on his Instagram @eightsecs. WM


Victor Sledge

Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia.  He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic. 

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