Grayland action photographer Bob Hitt loves the speed and grace of rodeo. Every year, he follows the Northwest rodeo circuit capturing riders of all ages performing incredible agility feats on horses with flying hooves. The resulting images are spectacular.
Hoquiam native Bob Hitt says he came to photography by accident. After high school and college, he joined the US Air Force. On leaving the military, Hitt went to work at his grandfather’s cranberry bog in Grayland. Having become interested in computers during his time in the service, he made use of the slow winter months in cranberry farming to attend programming classes at Grays Harbor College. His great interest and dedication landed him a job as a part-time instructor and a subsequent appointment to the Board of Trustees. After 20 years at the college, Hitt moved on to a position as webmaster for the Aberdeen School District while continuing his work in cranberries.
As webmaster, Hitt needed photos to make the site attractive. He started out with pictures supplied by parents, but found that they were seldom what he was looking for. They lacked the context that would show strangers what was happening. Hitt grabbed his wife’s small digital camera and began shooting his own photographs. Soon he was hooked and moved on to a better camera, and then an even better one. “I was amazed at the dramatic difference,” he remembers.
After purchasing a professional camera, Hitt took a few classes on photography software for which he travelled as far as Seattle, Tacoma and San Francisco. For the most part, however, he is self-taught. He experimented, learned from his mistakes and sought advice from experienced photographers.
From the start, Hitt was more interested in action photography than portrait or event work. His position with the Aberdeen School District included many sports events where he gained experience in working with varying light conditions and shutter speeds.
“I came to rodeo photography the same way I came to photography – by accident,” says Hitt. “One day, I wandered into a rodeo at Longbeach. I loved it and decided to attend a professional one. I enjoyed the first day and returned with my camera for the next day.” At this point, Hitt came up against rodeo regulations. To be permitted to shoot in the arena, he was required to become a member of the rodeo association and pay a fee. When shooting in the arena, the place for the best angles, he was required to dress as a cowboy. On returning home in his Western outfit for the first time, Hitt’s wife asked: “How much did that cost?” “We’ll talk about that later,” was the somewhat evasive answer.
Most Northwest rodeos are organized by two associations: The Northwest Junior Rodeo Association and the Northwest Pro Rodeo Association. There are also some smaller independent rodeos such as the Posse Rodeo taking place at the Elma fairgrounds in March. This indoor event with challenging light conditions is the earliest rodeo Hitt attends every year. Oakville hosts another Grays Harbor event, the annual Northwest Junior Rodeo in July.
Hitt has a special interest in the Northwest junior rodeos, which take place every two weeks all over coastal Washington from Sumas to Long Beach. He is one of the few professional photographers shooting at these events and has followed the careers of many of the participants, most of whom are girls. Talking about his photographs, Hitt has a story to tell about each girl-horse team. He speaks with admiration about the rapid skill development in the three- to five-year-old peewee class riders: “They start out with mom holding the reigns and putting a hand on their legs so they won’t fall off. By the time they are five, they gallop by themselves. Mom or dad may have to help them dismount. It’s a long way down from a tall horse.”
Barrel racing is the most popular of rodeo competitions and features on many of Hitt’s most stunning shots. Girls and boys as well as adult women maneuver their horses closely around a triangle of barrels showing off their riding skills and their horse’s athletic ability. Other exciting images show professional bull and bronco riders and team roping. At crucial moments in these fast-paced competitions, Hitt sets his camera to burst mode to obtain a closely timed sequence of shots. Back home, he will need to edit from 3,000 to 4,000 shots per rodeo day.
At the year-end junior rodeo association banquet, Hitt presents slide shows of his work accompanied by stories about the young riders he has come to know. His interest in seeing them grow up combined with his great technical skill produces beautiful images, which the riders will treasure in years to come.