Opus Art, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom
Lisa Eisner Biography
Greybull, Wyoming, USA, 1957
Lisa Eisner's fascination with rodeo queens began when, at the age of 10, she saw these glamorous, flamboyant women ride past on their horses in the rodeo parade in her hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming. A former tomboy, Eisner had a fashion epiphany: 'I was ready for a bra and tiara' she remembers, 'I was ready to be a rodeo queen.' In senior high, she got to carry the flag for the grand entry of the rodeo. But she couldn't ride her horse and, when it broke into a gallop, she fell off, ending one promising career.
Eisner later became a journalist, working for the slicks and the dailies, and undertaking lengthy stints as Fashion Editor of Mademoiselle, and as Paris- based Editor then West Coast Editor of American Vogue. But she never forgot the rodeo girls, and in 1994 she decided to document them in a now-celebrated series of images. Collected in 2000 as the book Rodeo Girl, Eisner's photographs range from verite monochrome images which display the perfect timing of serious photojournalism, to informal full-length portraits whose saturated colors and lipstick-smacking glamour reveal Eisner's fashion editor's eye for sartorial detail. A kind of stylistic branch of anthropology, these images bring vividly to life a universe with its own codes, customs and rituals, its own notions of style, grace and toughness.
Over the years since the first Miss Rodeo America contest in 1955, rodeo style has evolved into a strange and strangely beautiful hybrid of homecoming-queen and Roy Rogers, where the down-home functionality of hardwearing blue jeans mingles with the outright flash of sequin-encrusted shirts, ten-gallon hats accessorized with silver tiaras, huge earrings and big, big belt buckles. In Eisner's seductive images, the gum-chewing girls who wear this gear ride their steeds with abandon, yet are always perfectly made up and rarely have a hair out of place - after all, each of them wants to be crowned 'Miss Rodeo America'. When not gazing enviously at each other's outfits, the women shimmer with confidence, starring in images that are symphonies of sparkle - ultra- white teeth, shining eyes, glittering costumes.
Eisner also captures the surreal longueurs of the wider scene. In one monochrome image, a state-winning 'Miss Rodeo' sits on the bus, gazing dreamily out the window while sipping a soft drink through a straw. Another photo shows a lonesome, painted-metal 'bucking bronco' standing outside a trailer. Other images show dolled-up children evidently dreaming of becoming future stars, and the older generation tapping into the scene's energy. Taken together, Eisner's photographs also display a more generalized feeling for the old America. For what are rodeo girls but a re-envisioning of the classic American West, albeit one filtered through the world of beauty pageants and Prom nights? The cliches of American history are here glossed and re- presented; the 'Stars and Stripes' pops up repeatedly on shirts and wrapped around horses, while the leather chaps and tassels of cowboy style are reinvented as stylish and precisely orchestrated fashion statements.
The rodeo girls are a complex and self-contained phenomenon and their presentation by Eisner has certainly struck a chord. Since the publication of Rodeo Girl, this tasseled aesthetic has graced fashion catwalks and been picked up by that weather vane of the cultural zeitgeist, Madonna, as the fresh 'look' of her Music album and ensuing tour and videos. But Eisner's work refuses to be reduced to window dressing for fashionistas. Its strength resides not in its sartorial novelty but in its unforced capturing of multiple and coexisting impulses: masculine and feminine style and attitude, excitement and inactivity, happiness and longing, dirt and glitter - the American West of the past and that of the present. It is a thrilling and powerful mix; like their subjects, Eisner's photographs ride tall in the saddle and cast a long shadow.
'Rodeo Girl', Jan Kesner Gallery, Los Angeles, USA, 2000
'Rodeo Girl', Colette, Paris, 2000
Rodeo Girl, Greybull Press, 2000