If you or a horse person in your life are obsessed with the cowboy life, then the newly-published coffee table book Cowboys & Rodeos is for you (and it makes a great holiday gift, just saying).

But more than just a gorgeous photography keepsake, the book is the work of Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) lensman Alyn Robert Brereton, who picked up his camera professionally at the age of 69. Brereton, who hails from California, spent most of his career in the fields of archeology and primatology, among other sciences. But capturing the beauty and grit of the cowboy life and rodeo scene is a return to his roots.

We interviewed Brereton about his book, his love of the West, rodeos, and what his fantasy rodeo event would look like.

HORSE CANADA: What drew you to cowboy culture, and what about it made you want to document it?

ALYN: I grew up in ranching country in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range in Central California. The community was Roberts Ferry, which is approximately 23 miles due east of Modesto, which is halfway between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park.

I was gifted a Kodak Brownie in my early years which I used to snap images of my calf I was raising for a 4-H project. Later, after my maternal grandfather passed away, I inherited his used Zeiss Icon 35mm. I used this camera to photograph landscapes in Yosemite and other scenes while traveling on various journeys taken to National Parks in the Western States with my wife, Kris. Prior to this, I used the camera to shoot images while pursuing other activities — working on archaeology projects in California, Nevada, and Alaska. The Zeiss Icon was also used to help document my research on stump-tailed macaque monkeys in Catemaco, Mexico. The latter was spending time collecting data for my doctorate in psychology from the University of Stirling in Scotland.

In 2013, I dunked the Zeiss in water after Kris and I flipped our canoe while navigating the Tuolumne River. After this, I thought it best to advance to digital and begin learning how to work with the images I shot on my computer. This led to a whole different set of experiences — all immediate, creative and exciting.

Then came March of 2018. My wife’s brother was in the hospital having major surgery. I remained in the hospital’s waiting room to pass time. That was when I came across a small blurb in the Modesto Bee (a hometown newspaper) about a rodeo in La Grange, California, not far from where I grew up.

Even though I had never photographed a rodeo prior to this, I grew up in cattle country and had worked on a cattle ranch near La Grange the summer I turned 16. With these experiences and my wife’s family having been involved with the cattle business since the 1860s, I decided to give it a go and shoot the event for old times’ sake. I became hooked. It was fast and furious, and it was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before. From that moment on, I vowed to continue shooting rodeo.

Photographing rodeo and cowboys seems a major departure from your work as a primatologist, archaeologist, and ethnoarchaeologist.

Actually, earning a doctorate in psychology (specializing in primatology) and doing archaeology and ethnoarchaeologist are the real departures from where and how I grew up. Who would have ever thought a kid growing up with three brothers in cowboy culture in rural California and attending a small two-room elementary school would ever go on to travel and live internationally and work as an archaeologist? Now, shooting rodeo is my artistic journey home.

A man standing with a camera.

Pro rodeo photographer Alyn Robert Brereton. (photo by Kris Brereton)

Some say the cowboy lifestyle is a relic of the past; is that how you see it?

From my experience and perspective, cowboy lifestyle and culture will never die. It’s what Americans identify with; it’s our Western heritage, it’s going strong, even thriving. And today, the success of the television series Yellowstone, 1883 and 1923 seem to exemplify this notion as well.

Are there skills gleaned as an archaeologist that help you document cowboys and horses?

When studying free-ranging monkeys, one has to know each animal by name on sight spontaneously in order to collect precise data on their behavior. So close and studied observation is required. And archaeology helps in the sense that one has to pay attention to detail for accurate location and record-keeping on artifacts collected. So training in both of these disciplines has helped me in looking for interesting subjects and ways to photograph rodeo, both behind the scenes and within the arena as events unfold.

What inspired you at the age of 69 to take on a new career, especially one that is so physically demanding?

As the saying goes, age is just a number. And 69 is no different. As is 75, the age I am currently. Also, 40 is when I earned my Ph.D. degree. All three ages are considered late by most standards. So taking on challenges has been a part of my life from youth onwards.

I always enjoy challenges that first appear unreachable. But with a bit of thought, grit and raw determination, difficult tasks with unforeseen obstacles can often be overcome with long-held goals gained. It’s the journey and satisfaction of tasks achieved that gives one’s life meaning. This sounds cliché, but it’s true.

What did you want to capture in your photographs that you hadn’t seen anywhere else?

Rodeo for photographers offers poetry in motion. It’s candy for one’s eyes. I can’t explain it any other way. Photographing wildlife, landscapes, and portraits (which I also love doing) are magical in their own right. But these genre don’t come close to the thrill of capturing cowboys/cowgirls and specially-bred animals working in unison to perform a task no other sport can provide.

Fans of all sports sitting in the stands, including rodeo, think they know what they’re witnessing as the moments unfold. But they’re mistaken. Most action sports occur far too fast for a person to really “see” what’s happening. And this is especially true of rodeo. In order to really see and observe what’s unfolding, the action must be stopped. A fraction of a second makes all the difference. And when that action is frozen, only then can the truth of what’s occurring be observed and truly appreciated.

In rodeo rough stock, for example, the expression on the cowboys’ faces and the contortions of their bodies tell the story, as do the positions and maneuverings of the bulls and broncs as they perform to unseat their riders. When these scenes are captured with a fast shutter speed and the appropriate angle of the camera with proper composition and lighting, magic happens for all to see. The artistry of it all is thrilling and addicting.

What surprised you most about the cowboy way of life that you didn’t know when you started the project?

I grew up in and around the culture. I always knew the skills that ranch work required in order to accomplish the tasks at hand — training and riding horses, roping, rounding up cattle for branding or marketing, fixing fence, irrigating pasture and so forth.

But the hard-earned skills of riding 1,000+ pound broncs and bulls specially bred for bucking, I did not realize. This is rough stock. In timed events, the coordination of cowboy/cowgirl with horse can only be recognized, appreciated, and admired. And when these skills are captured in a brief moment in time it’s nothing short of extraordinary.

Do you still photograph the circuit as an accredited photographer?

Yes, at age 75, I remain a proud carded member of the PRCA and I continue to shoot at events whenever and wherever the opportunities arise. For example, this year I was provided with permission to shoot at Cheyenne Frontier Days, the ‘Daddy of ´em All.’ I had never shot Cheyenne prior and shooting there was amazing and the pinnacle of my experiences shooting rodeo to date. The Calgary Stampede is next on my list. I hope whoever is in charge takes note! The National Finals Rodeo (NFR) is in a league by itself. And at 75, shooting the event is probably a leap too far outside my grasp. But who knows? Maybe when I’m 100?

What’s your muse for inspiration to continue?

It’s the extreme satisfaction of capturing the thrill of the ride, a few milliseconds in time never to be repeated or grasped exactly as witnessed ever again.

If you were to compete at a rodeo, what would be your class, and why?

If I was young and naive once again, I’d definitely ride bareback bronc. Of course, I can say that now since it will never come to pass, thankfully for me and my physical wellbeing! Bareback bronc is, hands down, my favorite event to shoot. It’s as if all hell has broken loose. Bronc and rider are all over the place, both in the air and when touching ground. The athletic abilities of both the bronc and rider are enormous. Cowboys must wear neck protection during each ride to help prevent whiplash. Being wiped backwards and forwards on each jump is dramatic and real. It’s truly something to witness and behold. And to catch the action in a millisecond with camera and long lens is as fun as it gets shooting rodeo.

Don’t get me wrong. Other rough stock and timed events are special in their own right. But for me, bareback bronc is where it’s at. Shooting rodeo will continue to be my fascination until my body and mind dictates otherwise. Only then will my rodeo adventure come to a close. But that time has yet to come…


You can get more information at Brereton’s website and follow him on Instagram here.