The Long Road Home

Adjunct studio art professor Ron Tarver has exhibited his series on the African American cowboy experience across the U.S.

by Zach Epstein

All photos by Ron Tarver © 2013

Ron Tarver
Ron Tarver

In 1992, award-winning photographer and Visiting Assistant Professor of Studio Art Ron Tarver was in search of a new assignment.

"I was coming off a demanding project exploring the drug culture in North Philadelphia that was all shot in black and white and had all but sapped me creatively," says Tarver, who began teaching photography at Swarthmore in 2006. "I wanted something that would be up beat, in color, and would last three months or so."

The Oklahoma native turned to his own heritage for inspiration. The grandson of a working cowboy, Tarver set out to chronicle a side of the African American experience that is often overlooked.

Not long after Tarver's photos were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine, the publication for which he originally conceived the project, the feedback started coming in.

"I remember getting more letters from the cowboys than most of the projects I had done before," he says. "That led me to approach my editors about doing a week-long series for Black History Month."

Next, National Geographic inquired about doing a story for them about black cowboys. Six years later, Tarver was still shooting.

"I was fascinated by the determination and warmth of the people I photographed," says Tarver. "I spent weeks living in ranches, trailer homes, and one weekend in the back of a pick-up riding with rodeo cowboys. I've worked on many projects since, but none that will compare to this one."

With the help of grants from the National Geographic Society and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Tarver traveled throughout the United States, spending time with the men and women continuing the legacy of African American cowboys. He visited an all-female riding team in California, met with Thryl Latting, the president of one of the nation's top rodeo producers, and passed through Southeast Texas, where African Americans still own and operate ranches handed down to them after emancipation. The resulting images comprise an exhibition entitled The Long Ride Home: The African American Cowboy Experience in America. The collection has been displayed in Texas, New York, and most recently this summer at Oklahoma's Chisholm Trail Heritage Center.

"At the turn of the 20th-century, estimates have it that one-third of working cowboys were black," says Tarver. "However, one of the most fascinating aspects of this project has been the realization that few people are aware of the role African Americans played in the West. This project is a visual testament to those men and women in the African American community who live out their western heritage everyday."

This dedication to storytelling, as well as his desire to share his own experiences, fits perfectly in his role at Swarthmore.

"As I tell my students at the beginning of each class, I'm an old photojournalist," says Tarver, who teaches classes in both color and black and white photography. "So be prepared for a lot of stories."

In the classroom setting, it's Tarver's students who serve as his inspiration.

"I am amazed at how much they soak in, not only from my experiences, but from the photographers we study through out the year," he says. "I marvel at the 'lightbulbs' as they go off, especially during the black and white darkroom class, where they're taken out of their digital safety zone. Near the middle of each class, once the technical hurdles are passed, they become some of the most engaged and thoughtful photographers I've been around."

Tarver shared the 2012 Pulitzer Prize at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he has been a staff photographer since 1983, for his work on a series documenting violence in the Philadelphia public school system. A recipient of the Pew Fellowship in the Arts, he has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and an Independence Foundation Fellowship. Tarver's work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and is included in museum collections such as the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pa., the Oklahoma History Center, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.