The first week of July is much anticipated across North America for its promise of fireworks, days off and spectacular parades. And it’s not just Canada Day and the Fourth of July we’re talking about. If you live in Calgary, or in rodeo country in general, the real holiday event that kicks off the summer is Stampede, with 10 solid days of competitive bull riding, free pancake breakfasts, raucous corporate parties and compulsory western wear for a whooping audience of a million-plus.
Now the Art Gallery of Calgary is offering a slightly more sedate take on the Stampede experience with an exhibition of works by New Mexico–based photographer Donald Woodman. Shot at small-town rodeos in the early 1980s—using a 100-year-old Brownie-style box camera, no less—Woodman’s photographs still easily reflect present-day events. (After all, you can’t bull ride from a Blackberry just yet.)
Woodman originally intended his black-and-white prints as a critique of the rodeo, and all the gender-based discrimination it encompasses (only one event, barrel racing, is open to women). Outside of the gallery, too, contentious debates about Stampede are growing—just this week, the Vancouver SPCA went to the national press when multiple Calgary newspapers refused to run its ad against calf-roping.
Still, it’s quite understandable if many viewers read Woodman’s images as a tribute to Western cowboy traditions. There is, after all, something a bit beautiful and nostalgic about them, a soupçon of that massive, proud, take-no-prisoners party that, for now, continues to overpower the Stampede’s more problematic particulars. (117 8 Ave SW, Calgary AB)