Kansas City native's photography highlights Black cowboys

Alice Mannette
The Hutchinson News
Robert Criff of Kansas City is holding the American flag during a rodeo in Oklahoma.

Growing up, Kansas City native Ivan McClellan knew he wanted to leave Kansas. He didn't know where he was going, but he knew he would go.

After high school, he headed for Manhattan - New York. McClellan went to a drama conservatory and acted for six years before trying his hand at design. 

But it was photography and telling people's stories that piqued his interest. 

"When I turned 17, I was determined to escape Kansas," McClellan said. 

Six years ago, McClellan went to his first rodeo run by Black cowboys, and he was hooked.

"In mainstream media, there's not a lot of opportunity for Black people," he said. "People of color are mostly presented as victims, criminals, rappers or athletes."

For McClellan, Black cowboys represent an untold story that needs to be told. They are a part of history, but most importantly, they constitute a symbol of strength and pride. 

"I think the cowboy represents hard work, independence and grit," McClelland said. "If you can associate those things with Black folks, you get a positive outlook. It’s a positive image."

Ivan McClellan

McClellan just opened an exhibit of 43 photographs of Black cowboys from across the United States at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, in Cody, Wyoming. The exhibit, Eight Seconds: Black Cowboys in America, opens on May 7 and runs through Jan. 7, 2022. McClellan wants to show off the story of what makes a Black cowboy tick.

"I hang out with them for a day or two," he said. "I find out their aspirations."

McClelland especially likes taking the pictures of cowboys getting ready to ride - brushing their horses, taping their ankles or putting their Stetson on. He wants to capture the fear, the passion and the apprehension.

During the competition, McClelland usually watches. He said that's when they are focused.

"I like to interact with people and get to know them," he said. "During competition, you see focus, but that emotion is released after."

After the cowboy rides the bull or ropes the calf, McClelland is back behind his lens. It is then when he witnesses what he calls celebration, relief and regret.

At some point, McClellan would like to place his cowboy photos in a book, documenting a somewhat unknown activity.

More: Pretty Prairie Rodeo brings in the best

A cowboy from Kansas 

One of the first Black cowboys McClellan met was Robert Criff, a man who attended the same high school as he did - a few decades earlier. After meeting Criff, McClellan realized there was a story that must be told so other Black youth can understand their roots. 

"He's (Criff) sun wrinkled and strong as an ox," McClellan said. "He has a beautiful blonde horse."

Criff also knew McClellan's grandmother. Like his family, she worked the land in Kansas City. Although McClellan loved visiting his grandmother and her goats, he didn't understand the benefits of living off the land. He knew there were farmers at his high school, but he stayed away from them.

"I've learned that those roots are critical to who I am today," said McClellan, now a father of two. "I want young people to feel like they can be cowboys. They can be a part of that culture."

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