By Jill Gleeson | Photography Credits: Rory Doyle
Rory Doyle’s photographic images of African-American Delta horse riders are taking him places.
There is something about a Rory Doyle image. You don’t have to be schooled in the finer points of the photographic arts to see it. His landscapes – be they the rich, rambling Mississippi flatlands, the idyllic white sands of Caribbean paradise Petit St. Vincent, or anything in between – are transportive in their beauty. Looking at them, you can almost smell the loamy soil, hear the sea kiss the shore. But it’s Doyle’s portraits, specifically his shots of the African-American cowboys of the Delta, that are winning New York gallery shows and big-deal state grants for him.
Though the low-key Cleveland, Mississippi, resident would surely blush at the notion, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Doyle is on his way to becoming the next great American photojournalist. In July, the Mississippi Arts Commission awarded him $5,000 through their 2018 Visual Artist Fellowship. Notes Malcolm White, the organization’s executive director, “Rory is a remarkable artist with a keen eye and a genuine sense of place. He has a unique ability to tell powerful stories with elegant compositions. His horizons are not limited by being a Mississippian, but rather that fact gives him a real ability to be boundless.”
Certainly Doyle, who also works for Delta State University as a news writer and photographer, has been finding success outside of the project for which he’s already best known. He has shot for a dizzying number of esteemed media brands, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Getty Images, USA Today, Men’s Journal and Oxford American. During his tenure at the Bolivar Commercial, which began after Doyle wrapped up graduate school at Delta State University in 2011, he netted four awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including first place, breaking news photo.
But it’s capturing images of black cowboys and cowgirls in Mississippi that Doyle says he’s most passionate about, adding, “This is a lifetime project for me. I’ve already made connections through this work that I never could have imagined. The fact that I’ve been welcomed and even treated like family…I don’t think this is something I’ll ever stop doing. I’d love to see what happens to the younger generation that’s riding now, and how they pass it down to those who come after them.”
The inspiration to photograph this little-known cultural group hit Doyle in late 2016, when he saw a small band of black cowboys riding in Cleveland’s Christmas parade. He introduced himself, soon securing an invite to shoot them at a rodeo the following month.
“It clicked right away as a potential project because we don’t think of cowboys as black in America,” Doyle explains. “And it was something different. You see a lot of photography that features the farmland here in Mississippi, blues musicians or the river. I wanted to find a topic that wasn’t repetitive.”
Doyle, who says his goal as a photographer is to tell stories – ideally about “subjects who are often overlooked” – has had almost no formal training. He filmed all the family videos growing up in rural Maine, but for a long time it seemed his interest in celluloid would end there.
It wasn’t until Doyle took an introductory photojournalism course his last semester at Vermont’s Saint Michael’s College that he discovered his calling. While his classmates were taking uninspired pictures of extracurricular activities like cheerleading, Doyle was photographing Latino immigrants working on dairy farms. He was already hooked, although he would complete his master’s degree at DSU in health, physical education and recreation.
Flash forward a decade and this kind, unassuming man is opening an exhibit of his black cowboy images at New York City’s The Half King, co-owned by journalist bigwig Sebastian Junger, author of the blockbuster book, “The Perfect Storm.” The show, which ended last month, ran concurrently with an exposition of Doyle’s work at Harlem gallery Tikhonova Wintner. To add to the dizzying successes of the summer, Doyle traveled in July to Georgia as a recipient of the SlowExposures Artist in Residence program.
Doyle was selected by the organization, which celebrates photography of the rural South, thanks to the cowboy project.
“During his week in Pike County, Rory jumped right in with genuine curiosity and disarming social grace and engaged many black residents from all walks of life,” says Christine Curry, SlowExposures director and founder. “This resulted in several serendipitous connections (one early morning conversation with our local deli operator led him to a thriving community of black cowboys in our region). We can’t wait to see the images – and remain grateful to Rory for helping us ‘see’ more of Pike County.
As Doyle continues to photograph the black cowboys and cowgirls who have so captured his imagination, he envisions a traveling exhibit of the work, as well as a book project. But in the meantime, for Mid-South residents who would like to catch this artist on the rise, Doyle will be part of this month’s SlowExposures group show and he’ll have an exhibit next February at the Delta Arts Alliance in Cleveland.
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