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Lange Fellowship winner isn’t horsing around

| 09 February 2005


Tristan Spinski has received the Dorothea Lange Fellowship for his series of black-and-white photographs of Nevada rodeos.

The second-year journalism grad student says he plans to use the $4,000 award to pursue his project on American rodeo riders, paying for equipment and travel to rodeos in California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

“I want to tell an American, working-class story with my photographs — full of action, heartbreak, and all the subtle moments of victory and defeat in between,” Spinski wrote in his application for the fellowship. He said he was inspired to document the rodeo by a cowboy who told him a funny story about losing the tip of his thumb in a roping accident.

“He was tough in a way that I could never be. He was tough in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Spinski wrote.

Spinski's images include one of a cowboy wrestling a steer to the ground in a swirl of dust and hooves and leather. Others show the world surrounding the ring: the crowd in the stands (at right), sober rodeo clowns after a hard night’s work, and cowboys milling outside the chute.

Spinski’s photographs, as well as information on the fellowship, may be viewed online at www.berkeley.edu/lange.

The competition, sponsored by the Office of Public Affairs, is open to Berkeley faculty, graduate students, and seniors accepted for graduate work who are from any discipline. The prize is given for outstanding work in documentary photography and a creative plan for future work.

Spinski, 26, grew up in Delaware and Ohio. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 2001 with an undergraduate degree in English. Last summer, he interned with the Cape Gazette in Lewes, Del., and with the U.S. Army in Fort Irwin, Calif., where Army and National Guard soldiers train before they ship out to Iraq.

Spinski initially planned to be a print journalist, specializing in long-form feature writing. An undergraduate assignment first introduced him to the rodeo world, but it was a fluke of class scheduling at the Graduate School of Journalism that led to photography, he says.

“I tried to get into some writing classes, but they were full — so I wound up with two photography classes in one semester,” he recalls. After that immersion, he was hooked.

In a letter of recommendation, the 2003 winner of the Lange Fellowship called Spinski'’s photographs “vibrant, gutsy, and at times surprising.”

“Tristan is not intimidated by the people he photographs or the rough conditions of the rodeo,” wrote Mimi Chakarova, a photography lecturer at the journalism school. “Tristan feels at home no matter where he takes his camera. He relates to the common man, because he does not judge; he radiates respect and willingness to learn from strangers. And he is a damn good photographer.”