Images of the unsung cowboys

Theresa Conroy

Camden Courier-Post

1994

Images of the unsung cowboys: Although their story is seldom told, African-Americans have had an active role in the taming of the West. A high-tech photo exhibit documents the experience of the black cowboy.

It’s more than an artistic compliment to say that photographer Ron Tarver’s exhibit, opening today at the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center, breathes life into the black American cowboy.
Using the technology of CD-ROM, the exhibit, A Long Ride Home: The Black Cowboy Experience in America, speaks, moves, and even sings. The interactive computer presentation accompanies 20 of Tarver’s traditionally displayed photographs.
In addition to being high-tech about presenting his art, the subject matter is fresh. The topic is so unusual that when Tarver’s black cowboy photos first were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he is a news photographer, readers were incredulous.
Even though there may be little documentation, there are, Tarver said, African American cowboys. Really. They work on ranches, perform in rodeos, and sport Western wear.
“Originally, I’m from Oklahoma, so I always knew there were black cowboys,” Tarver said during a recent interview. “My grandfather was a true cowboy -- he worked on a ranch and my mom was raised on a ranch. A lot of people wrote in after the story -- they never heard of black cowboys -- and thought it was a joke.”
The still photographs are shots of ranch owners and rodeo performers, and portraits of cowboys who worked in the 1920s and ‘30s, “when there were still real cowboys around,” Tarver said.
The computer-presented photographs -- including a succession of shots of a cowboy roping a steer -- offer more than any static image. The steer roper, for instance, moves towards the observer. The computer program also presents cowboy legends, subject profiles, traditional cowboy songs, and Tarver’s own explanation of the project.
“My take on the future, my little commentary that I like to give to people, is, I really think CD-ROM is the future of photography,” Tarver said.
Tarver said he hopes that computer-aided gallery exhibits will impart knowledge as well as entertainment.
We’re doing the CD especially toward education, so kids can look at it, to make it fun so they can play with it,” he said.
Tarver has spent the last three years working on the project. What began with that first newspaper photo essay on cowboys in Philadelphia “has developed into a work in progress,” he said. He’s now working on a photo story on the topic for National Geographic, and hopes to eventually publish a book with an accompanying CD-ROM disc.
“CD-ROM added a whole new dimension to the work,” Tarver said. “The CD-ROM can carry four or five times more pictures than you could ever put on a wall.”

If you’re going: A Long Ride Home: The Black Cowboy Experience in America opens today with a 5:30 reception in the Andrew Vitagliano Fine Arts Gallery of the Walt Whitman Cultural Arts Center, 2nd and Cooper Streets, Camden. The exhibit runs through Nov 11. Gallery Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. Admission is free, For information, call 964-8300.