Louise Serpa (1925-2012)

Inducted in 2017

From the early 1960s until her death in 1912, Louise Larocque Serpa was an integral part of the rodeo community throughout Arizona and the Southwest. Born into New York Society on December 15, 1925, Louise was sent to Miss Chapin’s school for “small girl snobs,” she delighted in saying. In 1953 when her mother headed to Reno to obtain a divorce from her father, nine year old Louise went with her. She described the place she and her mother stayed in Virginia City, Nevada as a “dusty little dude ranch—but I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

Louise graduated from Garrison Forest School in Owings Mill, Maryland in 1943. World War II was raging across Europe and the Pacific sending thousands of U.S. servicemen overseas to fight. Louise joined a handful of her classmates who had been invited to spend the summer on a Cody, Wyoming dude ranch, not as guests but to replace the cowboys. These society girls scrubbed toilets, waited tables and entertained Eastern visitors. At the end of that summer, she entered Vassar College and graduated with a degree in Music in 1946.

In 1948 she married, but after the marriage faltered, she headed West to Nevada and Arizona. She bought a little camera at the local drugstore and began attending rodeos and roping contests. Cowboys bought her rolls of film so she would take pictures of them allowing them to critique their actions in the ring. After the failure of her second marriage, Louise settled in Tucson. To support her two daughters she began taking photographs of youngsters at the Tucson Rodeo as they bounced and bucked on small sheep and calves and sold them to the proud parents. This was the beginning of a career that would span almost fifty years and take Louise to the highest pinnacles of rodeo photography.

As she progressed from shooting junior rodeos to cowboys in action, she was initially relegated to shooting outside the arena. At that time, women were simply not allowed to shoot inside the fence line. She knew that if she wanted a career as a rodeo photographer she would have to be inside the ring and take her chances with charging bulls and bucking horses. Finally, in 1963, the Rodeo Cowboys Association presented Louise with the first press card issued to a woman, allowing her to shoot pictures inside the fence. Her status as the first woman photographer inside the arena did cause a few raised eyebrows, but Louise always maintained she was not trying to prove anything. All she wanted was to take a good picture. She became a master of her craft.

Louise was the official photographer for the Tucson rodeo from 1963 to 2011. She photographed rodeos throughout Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming and Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She also shot a variety of other horse competitions, creating a following among the cowboys and the stock companies. Frustrated with camera shops ruining or losing her negatives, she taught herself how to develop her own prints. On trips out of town she shot up to 12 hours a day, lugging her heavy equipment from one arena to another. Often she would process the film in the evening by using duct tape and foil on the windows of her motel bathroom.

Rodeo photography is a dangerous occupation and her motto became “Never don’t pay attention.” She said of her craft, “As a photographer in the arena, my job is record the action every time a shute gate opens—and never to get in the way. The worst thing for anyone working on the ground to do is to interfere with the action…You soon learn where to be for the various events and to keep an eye on the nearest fence to climb in case you need to get out in a hurry.” Through the years she was stomped by a bull, slammed between a fence and gate by an overzealous horse, kicked in the back of the neck, roped around the neck by a wayward lasso and knocked over by a steer wrestler.

She rode the book Rodeo in 1994 and numerous articles for rodeo publications. Her photographs have been exhibited in galleries around the country. She was a member of the Founding Board of the Arizona Junior Rodeo Association. Among the awards she received were: Photographer of the Year from the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, the Tad Lucas Award from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, induction into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame in 1999 and Grand Marshall of the Tucson Rodeo in 2006.