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More Rodeo Days

By Carla De Landri ’78

Vassar Quarterly, Spring 1995

pp. 14-17

Wearing a broad-brimmed cowboy hat and shiny boots, her skin tawny and creased from years spent outdoors, Louise Larocque Serpa ’46 was easy to spot in midtown Manhattan. The woman who for thirty-five years has made a living photographing rodeos looks like a portrait of the American West. She might even have stepped from the frame of one of her own photographs, a collection of which has just been published by Aperture (Rodeo, 1994). Her looks do not betray her big-city roots. A passerby greets her with a holler, “Hey Tex.”

Louise Serpa believes she was born in the wrong place to the wrong woman in the wrong century. “I never belonged in New York,” she says. “I hated New York. I hated New York Society.” Her disdain showed itself in a spirited rebellion. During her debut to New York society at the Waldorf Astoria, the then Miss Larocque, in white gloves and pearls, rode sidesaddle down one of the banisters. Her gown caught on an uneven joint, and long, white dress split down the back.

It wasn’t her last dust-up with fancy clothes. During Christmas Break in 1943 she visited a New York City nightclub wearing a tight, red dress. She stepped up to the bar, planted her foot firmly on the footrail, and showed off a stunt she’d learned in the West the previous summer—she struck a match on her rear end. The match caught fire, but so did the dress, scorching the fabric across her butt. “I could never be what I was supposed to be,” she comments. “I was not New York society.”

Louise Larocque’s love of things Western began at age nine, when her mother, seeking a divorce in Nevada, took Louise with her. There was “an instant connection” to the place, and it has stayed with her.

At 17, during the summer before entering Vassar, Louise went West again, this time to work on a ranch in Wyoming. She fell in love with a cowboy. But even though her cowboy was from a long established Eastern family, Louise’s mother thwarted any attempt at romance. Louise was summoned back East and entered Vassar. (Rodeo is dedicated to that cowboy.)

Rodeo, of course, was not one of the three Rs offered at Vassar, but Louise managed to keep up with the sport. “In those days,” she recalls, “rodeo was at Madison Square Garden for three weeks in the fall.” A few days each of those weeks she would sneak out of Cushing and take the train to the city to see her rodeo pals. “I would do my homework on the train,” she says. Getting back on campus around 2 in the morning, well past curfew, she would report the night’s results to the watchman, Mr. Trainey (fortunately for Louise he hailed from Wyoming and was a rodeo buff himself), then sneak back to her room. “I loved a lot of the people who were involved in the rodeo,” she says. “They were the free spirits that I suppose I always wanted to be. They lived the life they loved.”

There were other rebellions during her Vassar years. A music major, Louise recalls “singing for cigarettes in every bar from Arlington to Poughkeepsie.” It was, she reminds, the years of wartime rationing, and smokes were in short supply. Louise continued singing now and again in bars, church choirs, and for the USO until the early 1950s.

After Vassar, Louise succumbed to tradition and the demands of her mother: she married a Yale man and settled in New Canaan, Connecticut. “I did him a terrible disservice,” she says now. After four years of marriage, she felt bored and restless and wanted to get out West again. Once more, she headed for Nevada, this time to get her own divorce. In six weeks she got her freedom; she stayed a year, working as a ranchhand.

By then, there was no turning back. Louise had permanently bucked tradition and her East Coast roots. She met Gordon Serpa, a western jack-of-all-trades. In 1953 he became her second husband and the father of her two daughters. It was clear Louise would never return East to live, and her mother, fed up with her daughter’s brand of independence, disinherited her. For Louise, this disinheritance meant freedom. “I was so tired of being pulled and pushed and told what to do by then, it just didn’t matter to me.” It did, however, mean that she and her husband had to scramble, “doing anything to make money—from digging graves, 35 dollars a grave, to hauling cement block.” Finally, they settled on ranching , in Nevada, then in Oregon.

In the early 1950s, Louise acquired a basic Argus C-3 camera, “which cost about $27, to shoot ropings.” She taught herself the necessary photographic skills. “The cowboys bought the film and the beer, and I gave the pictures to the boys. By then I got the timing down pretty well, so they could tell what they were doing right or wrong. They could see if they were getting off the horse late or if the horse wasn’t setting up the way they wanted. I would sit there and shoot on Sunday afternoons and give them the results.” During the couple’s years of ranching in Oregon, however, Louise put her camera on the shelf.

After seven stormy years of marriage, Louise divorced again and moved to Arizona. One Sunday some friends invited her to a junior rodeo. “I could not believe nobody was taking pictures of the kids coming out riding calves and roping and doing everything the big guys did. It was mindboggling that there were no photographers. So I got into the ring and for 75 cents apiece, I sold those pictures to the parents of the children.” Thus began her career as a rodeo photographer.

The need to pay for treatment of her daughter’s rheumatoid arthritis sent the financially strapped Serpa into the business of photography “full tilt. I had to make money, and I couldn’t sing in bars anymore.” She would shoot for up to twelve hours a day and then develop and print her own film at night in a closet at home.

For three years, Serpa snapped her photos through the railings at the rodeo. “It never occurred to me to get into the arena,” she says. “Rodeo was advertised as the world’s most dangerous sport, and I believed that.” But she wanted to get closer to the action. Never a fan of the long telephoto lens—“the background gets squished against the action”—she asked permission to get into the ring. “I wasn’t trying to prove anything,” Serpa says now. But she made rodeo history, becoming the first woman allowed to shoot pictures from inside the arena.

While dodging bulls and bucking broncs, Serpa stops the action in midair with her camera, shooting photos that jump off the page. The action is so close you can practically hear the grunts of bulls and cowboys and feel the dust choking your lungs. It should come as no surprise that Serpa has been seriously injured—twice. The first time, a bull charged her, threw her into the air, and trampled her on the ground. Her instinct was to protect her camera, the only one she owned at the time. The cowboys rescued her, pulled the bull away, and got her out of the ring. The announcer asked over the loudspeaker, “Louise, did you get his picture or shall we run him through again?” She finished shooting the day’s events. Later, at the hospital, she found that the bull had fractured her sternum.

“After that first bull hit me, it took me almost a year before I could stand my ground,” she recalls. “I’d take one picture and find myself up a tree or a fence or something without even knowing how I got there. You know, you can’t take very good pictures when you are running.” Nor when you’re shooting from outside the fence. “I knew if I cried or acted like a woman, I’d never be allowed into the arena again,” she says. So she kept at it, taking away from her brush with the bull one valuable lesson: “Never don’t pay attention.”

“You have always got to be aware,” she states. “If you’re not paying attention, you can get flattened and you can get in the way.”

Rodeo photography still holds challenges for Louise and the sport itself still holds significance. “Rodeo is a common denominator,” she says, “an equalizer.” Cowboys, she says, don’t “give a tinker’s damn whether you came from a rich family . . . or anything else as long as you’re a real person. If they don’t like you, they’ll let you know it.” Cowboys get Serpa’s respect because they judge people as individuals on their merit, not for background or money or education or anything else. “That applies to all the West, not just rodeo,” she says.

Which brings up again the matter of her mother’s opinion: did she ever accept her daughter’s unEastern life? “To Mother, a photographer took passport pictures. . . . Besides, she thought rodeo had no class at all.” She begged Louise to keep her work secret from their Eastern social circles.

The issue was settled to the daughter’s satisfaction when Louise appeared on national television. Owing to her unusual profession, Serpa was booked on the popular program “To Tell the Truth.” So many people watched the show that even the elevator in her mother’s apartment building “came to a screeching halt for the half hour that the program was on,” she says. “Then everybody knew what I did.”

Ironically, a different horse event finally brought some peace to the difficult mother-daughter relationship. Before her mother died, Louise brought her to England, where she was shooting at the Grand National Finals, a polo tournament. Afterward, they visited the stud farm of the Aga Khan in Ireland. Louise remembers, “I thought I’d show Mother that once in a while the camera can get you somewhere with class.”

Now, at age 69, Louise Serpa still climbs into the ring to shoot her rodeo photos. She observes that her presence gives the young cowboys a real scare; she has heard them say with some surprise, “What the hell is that old lady doing in the ring?”

But that “old lady” has no intention of retiring. She still feels the jolt of adrenalin when she steps into the arena, a surge that makes her feel young. She feels a great sense of accomplishment from capturing three generations of cowboys on film. In the process, she has earned the Pulitzer Prize of her trade, the Silver Buckle for Best Action Photo awarded by Prorodeo Sports News. She has had gallery shows of her photographs—most recently in New York City. And these days, Louise Serpa has the luxury of owning more than one camera. Now, if she is charged by a bull, “I hit him over the head with it.”