Photographer: Gabriela Herman
Text and reporting: Kelly Williams Brown
Design: Tyson Evans
Art Director: Mariana Tuma ( freelance )
Photo Director: Alix Campbell
Photo Editor: Allie Kircher
Heidi: Did Cosmopolitan commission this project or did you bring this idea forward?
Gabriela: This was a commissioned assignment for Cosmo and my first assignment for them. They contacted me in the summer of last year after seeing a story I had shot for Martha Stewart Living on the Kutztown Folk Festival. The first part of the rodeo shoot had a sort of similar, small-town fair vibe, which I think was a parallel. I was very fortunate to be teamed up with a writer, Kelly Williams Brown, who pitched the story to Cosmo and who became a good friend throughout the process.
How many days/weeks did it take to shoot this?
The shoot was split into three trips out West over five months. For the first trip, we went to Corvallis, OR, to the home of Nicole Schrock, who was Miss Rodeo Oregon and the main character of the story. We followed her around at home, on her family’s farm and the local county fair. The second trip started in Portland, OR, where Nicole was joined by five other state queens and we toured around Oregon for a week before arriving at the Pendleton Rodeo, one of the largest and most historic in the country. (Fun fact: At Pendleton, press is required to be in ‘rodeo wear’ meaning cowboy boots, a cowboy hat and appropriate western shirt, so I actually got a budget from Cosmo to purchase these items!) This was probably my favorite trip as it felt like I was just tagging along on a vacation with a group of awesome girls, plus I loved the reactions from walking around town with a gaggle of rodeo queens in tow. Lastly, we travelled to Las Vegas where the Miss Rodeo American competition takes place during the National Rodeo Finals, which is a huge event, cowboys everywhere!
What specifically does “expanded from an assignment” mean?
The story ran in the July issue this summer. Due to editorial constraints Kelly’s article was condensed into an intro for the photo essay and they published only a tiny portion the material that I had shot. Cosmo’s edit, understandably, was also very different than what I would show. Kelly and I talked a few weeks after it published and realized that we both had so much good material that we didn’t want it to go to waste and discussed how we could expand it. I knew I wanted to make a physical piece as a promo and I wanted for Kelly to share her full story in the way that she originally intended. The result was twofold: this promo book that highlights the photos with Kelly’s reporting interspersed throughout and a post on Medium with her full article and my photos. This was my first time working with Medium and while its geared toward text over imagery, it feels like it was the perfect place for our story to live. It was promoted by Medium, along with our outreach, and has been viewed over 21,000 times.
Was this promo a difficult edit? How many images were considered?
Yes! Isn’t every project difficult to edit? I shot over 4,000 images and there were probably around 250 that I handed into Cosmo and about 70 I was considering for the promo. One of the tricky things for me was choosing an image on the strength of the image versus the strength of the story. Unfortunately the last trip in Vegas, which was the grand culmination of everything — especially all the amazing sequined outfits — took place entirely under the fluorescent lights of the MGM Grand conference rooms. I had the least access to the girls, who were under constant chaperoned supervision. I knew it was important to show this in the story, but I didn’t feel they were the strongest images, so I only included two at the end to round out the story with the final shot of the newly crowned Miss Rodeo America. It’s not my favorite, but I felt like I needed that conclusion. There were also a few days on the second Oregon trip where the girls weren’t on queening duty and were just dressed in regular jeans and t-shirts. We shot guns, visited a saw mill and a cheese factory, went on a boat ride, and frolicked on Haystack Beach. A lot of the material I shot on those days just didn’t fit into the narrative, despite being some of my favorite shots.
The body of work has a great narrative arc, I loved the quote vs. captions. What made you decide to publish quotes?
I knew absolutely nothing about rodeo queens going into this story. I didn’t even know there was such an honor! The booklet was certainly to showcase the images and I knew it wasn’t the place where people would read a full article. But, I felt it would really enhance the experience by including a bit of context to the images that explains what its like being a rodeo queen for those who, like me, might not even understand the culture. I think this is a story that really benefits from hearing from the girls themselves.
Why the booklet, and not a foldout, magazine or cards…?
I’ve done post cards many times and recently did a promo poster this spring, but had never done a booklet. This might be the first body of work I have that falls nicely into such a linear narrative that making a book seemed logical. I have zero design background though and the idea of tackling a book project seemed very daunting. Luckily my husband is a designer and was immensely helpful in putting this together and it was an added bonus to be able to collaborate with him on this project. It was also a chance to try on-demand printing. We tried MagCloud and ultimately went with Smartpress, as they had better paper options. Both were great because I could order exact quantities, and can always order more.
Before you approach a multi day project, do you have an idea of it’s development or is it more organic ?
After the first trip out to Oregon, I came home so excited about the images. Nicole, the lead subject, was just wonderful to work with, as was her family who supported her all the way to Vegas. We had no idea if she was going to win the competition or not but she was perfect to be our main character in that she seemed to get along with everyone, certainly was considered a top contender and photographically was great in front of the lens. We actually got lucky in picking Nicole — the decision was mostly driven by Kelly, who lived in Oregon — because she ended up in third place out of twenty-seven girls in the competition . Projects definitely form more organically for me. I rarely set out with specific images I want to make. With so much material after only that first trip, I had a feeling I would end up with a body of work that I could develop beyond the assignment.
Are you constantly referring to images you’ve already shot and then looking for what needs to be added?
Not really. I usually just shoot and shoot and shoot and then pull out from there. I do wish I had been able to gain more access to the girls during the competition to round out the final stages of the story better, but I think I got enough. Were I to continue pursuing this project, of course I have in mind certain elements that I’d want to add. For example, there were talks at one point of shooting a seamstresses working on the gowns. With any project you could shoot forever and ever, but I think I’m done with this project for now. It was a wonderful opportunity to have all the access I received, and I feel like I told the story I want to tell.
What was your overall creative direction for this ( in your own body of work ) and from the magazine?
For the kind of stories I shoot, the type of direction I usually get is very broad and has me shooting a bit of everything. I love that kind of direction, or non-direction if you will, in that it leads me to shoot what I find most interesting. I rarely receive the type of assignment where there’s a shot already mapped out in someone’s mind and I’m there to execute it. This was no different. Of course there’s the schedule of events to follow but, outside of that, I was free to shoot anything and everything that caught my eye.
Are all the images in the promo unpublished?
There’s only one image (detail shot of Nicole’s Miss Rodeo Oregon chaps) from the promo booklet that was also used by Cosmo.
What was the most surprising element of this project?
Perhaps the fact that I was opened up to this whole new world that I didn’t even know existed. Did you know ‘queening,’ is used as a verb? And that hair curlers are an essential item to being a rodeo queen? This was a total cultural immersions for me from seeing parts of the country I’d never been, to attending my first rodeo, to shooting guns and bonding with girls outside of my social circle.
I am forever grateful to Cosmo and the photo department team who not only took a chance on me but really gave me the opportunity to dive deep into a subject matter, over a long period of time, and develop meaningful relationships.
How did this body of work force you to grow as a photographer?
One of the most important lessons from the this project was the power of collaboration and reporting. In this case I feel like having the quotes and the captions and being able to read Kelly’s full text really enhances the viewing experience of the images and adds another layer of understanding. I’m not a writer, nor do I feel I’m any good at it, yet from this experience I feel like I either need to push myself on the writing front or partner with other writers like Kelly who would be willing to dive deep into a project together.