Thirty years ago Cherokee PRCA Rodeo producer Bob and Donita Barnes invited a young, novice photographer they had never met or knew anything about to come photograph the Cherokee PRCA Rodeo.
That man - Robert Ridley of Marshall, Minn. - went on to become one of the most established, successful professional rodeo photographers in the world.
Because of his many appearances here since that inaugural Year 1979, many Cherokee Rodeo fans know Ridley as the big guy with the big camera who sticks his nose right into the action in the rodeo arena to get the best photos time after time. Ridley had a knack of calmly stepping up onto the fence and swinging one leg over the top of the fence to avoid an on-rushing bull or bronc, and then immediately returning to the infield to apply his craft.
Now retired from the rodeo circuit, Ridley recently penned a poignant letter to Bob and Donita, thanking them for giving him the opportunity that turned into an incredible, decorated career:
"Bob and Donita - As the Cherokee Rodeo approaches, I think back to 1979 when it all got started for me. I had already submitted several photographs to Prorodeo Sports News that were published. At the time, however, I did not have a PRCA card, nor any idea of what being a rodeo photographer entailed. That year, I saw a Barnes rodeo poster tacked on a telephone pole somewhere and that gave me the idea to call to see if you would be willing to allow me the opportunity to photograph the Cherokee Rodeo.
"Without hesitation, without knowing me from Adam, you told me to come ahead. At the time, little did I know what would lie ahead and the success I would be blessed with. From that point on, I achieved more than I ever thought possible. Over the next 25 years, I had photographs published in nearly every rodeo and horse publication. I sold thousands of photographs to cowboys, sponsors, publications, and yes, even to stock contractors. In fact, one such contractor still has an outstanding balance for 1,499 photos.
"In 1983, Prorodeo Sports News and Frontier Airlines selected one of my photos as Best Action Photo of the Year. Beyond the success of my photographs, I had the opportunity to meet some of the nicest people I have ever known, still friends to this day. Even more importantly, I was introduced to the Barnes family, whom I consider part of my own family. I had the joy of watching three Barnes children grow up. Over the years, I have watched as their families grew in age and numbers. What a joy watching all of this happen.
"Quickly, I learned one thing - a good rodeo photograph begins with good stock. Barnes stock is known far and wide to be outstanding, to the point some cowboys won't come and get on simply because they know they will not make the whistle. Beyond stock, I was also able to photograph professional acts and announcers, many getting their start like me - courtesy of the Barnes family. I hope my goal was patterned after the Barnes approach, to offer a quality, professional production. For this reason, I was honored to write a letter supporting Bob's nomination to the PRCA Hall of Fame. I was further honored when the Barnes family presented me with a Barnes Rodeo Photographer gold buckle, along with a written tribute. What a journey it has been!
"The journey hasn't been all roses, however. Some time back, John (Barnes) tacked the name Ridskie on me and once, Donita even turned on me. Back in the 'good old days' when Bob was in fighting form, I even took a 'cussin' of two. Fortunately, I was able to get back whenever he was in a weakened condition, like the time I told him to stay out of the way and go sit in his chair. The best came when Bob had heart surgery and I made him walk down the hall. To this day I still hear how cruel he was treated. Through all the years, in spite of everything, I have come to treasure the lighter times and the wonderful sense of humor and banter that still exists today. I have a folder titled 'Bob Barnes Letters' and to this day I retain all correspondence. I think one day it would make a good book.
"Since I was a little boy, I wanted to be a cowboy. I rode a stick horse until I started middle school and my parents bought me my first horse. I never had the talent to be a rodeo contestant, but thanks to the Barnes family I was able to fulfill my dreams many times over through photography. I hope my photographs have helped preserve rodeo history, but know it all began in 1979 at the Cherokee Rodeo.
"The journey has been wonderful and memorable and it all began with a telephone call. I will be forever grateful and I thank you for allowing me the opportunity to be a part of rodeo, but more importantly, a part of your family. For your support, I thank you.
"Yours very truly, Bob."
As Bob Barnes is so wont to say, for more than 50 years, the Barnes family of Peterson and Cherokee has been "going down the road" producing rodeos and making fans into friends and friends into fans.
The testimonials to the Barnes reputation in rodeo circles throughout North America are legion, and Robert Ridley, pro rodeo photographer extraordinaire, provides one more here.
Straight from the heart.