When Blake Little celebrates this opening day of his first-ever museum show at the Eiteljorg, he might seem like a gay rights activist to patrons. He's gay, so that's partly true. But what he really wants people to appreciate about the exhibition, "Photographs from the Gay Rodeo" is its artistry.
"Because it is the gay rodeo, they have social context that's important. It's secondary to me as a photographer," says Little, who is based in Los Angeles but is in town for his show's opening party this weekend. Museum events today include, among other things, a discussion with Little at 1:30 p.m. and later a book signing from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
The 41-piece exhibit of black-and-white photographs comes from a series of images Little captured in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was an award-winning participant in the gay rodeo circuit. The exposition marks the first time the images, which tell the story of a little-known part of American Western culture, have been displayed anywhere.
And it comes to Indiana amid a much-heated debate among citizens and the state's lawmakers, some of whom tried this month to push forward HJR-3, a measure to ban same-sex marriage in Indiana's Constitution. Neither Little nor museum officials expected this coincidence.
"It's kind of exciting timing, because it's a topic that is so relevant both locally and nationally, this conversation on gay rights and gay marriage, and here we have an exhibit that's showing another facet about what it means to love and be in the West," said Johanna Blume, assistant curator of Western art and culture at the Eiteljorg and lead curator of the exhibit. "I hope people will come with an open mind."
The museum has already gotten some reaction, both positive and negative, about Little's collection that portrays a segment of Western culture -- gay cowboys clad in cowboy hats, boots and chaps and riding bulls -- that is often ignored. The Eiteljorg's staff is welcoming the feedback and expecting more.
"I think (this project) is really great for the museum, because it's another exhibit in our growing history of exhibits that challenge what people think of when they think of the American West," said Blume.
Little, though, is just excited that a museum is showing the photographs he took during a significant time in his life: the four years, from 1988 to 1992, when he dressed like a cowboy, mustache and all, and competed in and documented the rodeo. Having grown up a city kid from Seattle, Little has been fascinated with cowboys since he was a teen. So, he participated in the rodeo, even won the 1990 bull-riding final, and simultaneously captured tender behind-the-scenes moments with his camera.
"Growing up, I related to more of like a masculine gay guy, and I wasn't really finding that in Seattle. This is like, in the early '80s," said Little, who is 57. "So the rodeo was part of that."
After leaving that circuit, Little had some mementos, especially a scar on his right cheek from the time he was nailed by a bull's horn. He filed away the photos for nearly 20 years until writer, film producer and activist Gregory Hinton contacted him about them. Having seen some of them in a gay-oriented publication years before, Hinton, who works to preserve and share the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the West, thought them perfect for an exhibition at the Eiteljorg.
"I pulled them out of the file cabinet ... and we edited them and we sent them to the Eiteljorg," says Little, who in his freelance business has also shot an impressive lineup of A-listers, including celebrities, such as Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow.
The show is part of a string of Eiteljorg exhibits that depicts diversity and untold stories in Western culture, said John Vanausdall, president and CEO of the museum.
"The people you see in the movies and on television and in popular culture that make up the West, there were others that have been a part of Western history and are a part of the West today," he said. "When this became available we jumped on it, because it fits the mold, in general, and it's a great photography exhibit."
That's all Little really needs to hear.
The Eiteljorg hosts events today surrounding the opening of "Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo," which runs through July 13. For more information, visit eiteljorg.org.
Among other activities this afternoon, there will be a performance by the Indy Men's Chorus at 12:30 p.m. at the museum.