National Cowboy Hall of Fame

Oklahoma City, OK



Ralph Russell Doubleday: Rodeo's First Professional Photographer

From left to right: Ruth Roach, 1999 Print from postcard 93.9.12; Smokie Snyder on "Webfoot" Pendleton Round-up, 1928, 1999 Print from negative, 79.26.1010; Tommie Kirnan Says "Good Morning Judge" Mante Vista, CO, 1919, 1999 Postcard, 88.9.989

In 1900, Ralph Russell Doubleday became an amateur photographer using the box camera perfected twelve years earlier by George Eastman. In the next 58 years, he would make his mark as a professional photographer with undisputed skill in the rodeo arena.

Charles E. Rand, Research Center Director for the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, has developed a fascinating retrospective of Doubleday's life using more than 124 black and white images from the museum's extensive Doubleday collection. "This selection of images will serve two purposes, " Rand says. The photographs will recognize and increase awareness and appreciation of rodeos' first professional photographer and at the same time enlighten the general public in terms of early rodeo history, personalities, and events." The exhibition is scheduled for viewing in the Grayce B. Kerr Gallery from October 15 through December 31, 1999.

In recognition of Doubleday's photographic accomplishments, and his promotional activities in terms of the sport of rodeo, the Rodeo Historical Society inducted him into the Rodeo Hall of Fame on November 27, 1988. Foghorn Clancy, rodeo historian and 1991 Rodeo Hall of Fame inductee, called Doubleday the "undisputed World's Champion Rodeo Photographer." In 1952 Clancy wrote, "Ralph was the first noted rodeo photographer because in those days there were not many photographers who would risk camera and film, not to mention life and limb, trying to get action pictures . . . His photography has been a big factor in the development of the sport, for action pictures, like nothing else, can depict the thrill and excitement of the game."

Doubleday was only one year old in 1882 when Buffalo Bill Cody presented the first Wild West Show in North Plate, Nebraska. By 1910, he had acquired years of experience as a photographer shooting everything from views of foreign lands for stereoptican glasses, a parlor pastime of the period, to big game hunts in Africa with Theodore Roosevelt. During his career, he covered the Teapot Dome hearings in Wyoming, took a rare shot of five Allied Generals during World War I, and held the distinct honor of being the first cameraman allowed by the Seminole Indians to enter their Everglades environment.

In 1910, at Cheyenne Frontier Days rodeo, Doubleday made his personal and professional mark. He captured on film C.B. Irwin's bucking horse, Teddy Roosevelt, throwing its rider, Gus Nylen. It is believed this was the first action shot of a man in midair, off a bronc. From that time forward he gained an admirable reputation with such shots as Smoky Branch on Glass Eye taken in 1921 at Garden City, Kansas; Sharkey the bucking Hereford bull taken in 1913 at Pendleton, Oregon, and Leonard Stroud on Indian Tom taken at Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1919.
Over the next four decades Doubleday was to pictorially record and document the history of both large and small rodeos. One writer stated that the key to Doubleday's international recognition was a "battered a black click box, a good eye, and extra sharp sense of timing."

Doubleday used and continued to make modifications to a 5X7 plate portrait Graflex Camera ca. 1880 with a 500-speed roller-blind shutter to which he added rubber bands to give higher tension. He rarely shot faster than 1/500 second, because he wanted to show a slight bit of movement to show action, not to freeze the motion.

The camera, converted into a 12-exposure magazine camera, had no diaphragm for regulation of the aperture, so all shots were photographed "wide open." He added focal length by mounting a cigar box to the camera, and while he never measured it, he rated it as a 17-inch lens. The bellows had been torn many times and patched with tire tape, plaster, and chewing gum. Because he never used a telephoto lens, Doubleday on more than one occasion had the camera knocked from his hands by livestock and trampled. Consequently, because struts in the viewing hood were damaged, Doubleday propped the hood open with a stick. The lack of sunshade was remedied by a rubber band around the lens barrel holding half a postcard as a shade.

In the 1920s Doubleday shipped his processing equipment and materials from rodeo to rodeo by train. Later, he used a baggage trailer hooked behind his car. Upon arriving in town, he would rent an apartment and convert either the kitchen or bathroom to a darkroom. In the afternoon he would shoot a good cross-section of the rodeo program and after supper would make postcards for the next day. He would average 200 prints from each negative. While many of his images were sold to magazines and the press, his primary and substantial income came from postcards which he wholesaled by the millions to drugstores, souvenir shops, and Woolworth stores.

In 1953 Doubleday made his last swing around the rodeo circuit. He walked with a cane and ironically was nearly blind. He never married. One might say his battered and patched Graflex camera, which he never traded in, was emblematic of his life. He died in June 1958 at Fort Worth, Texas and was buried at Council Bluffs, Iowa, one of his several studio locations.

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