LOGAN — In the beginning, Jim Fain used photography just to get a closer look at his favorite sport.
“Originally, it was a way to get into the rodeo arena for free,” admits the 77-year-old Fain, who built a rodeo photography business spanning six decades. “I could usually get into the rodeo, but packing a camera they’d give you a little space in the arena.”
Fain, who lives in Logan, eventually turned that early trick into Fain Photographic, a business that has been shooting rodeos in the intermountain area for more than 59 years. Fain captures the action at local and regional rodeos, then makes signed prints available for sale to patrons — mostly contestants — at the event.
“This is a business strictly on speculation,” Fain said. “The only time I got paid (in advance) to do something was in the early 1980s when Wrangler hired me for a shoot.”
Fain was born in Corydon, Iowa, during World War II. When he was 5 years old, his family moved to Buckeye, Arizona, where an uncle had a spread that raised cotton and sugar beets, along with palomino show horses.
“That was my first introduction to anything western,” he said.
At that time, Fain had a cousin who was a couple of years older than him. She owned a pair of chaps, which the young Fain thought was a pretty cool fashion statement.
“I told my parents I wanted a pair of pants like that,” he said. “I wasn’t taken too much with watching the rodeo at the time; I just liked wandering the wooden bleachers.
Fain’s family later moved to the edge of Phoenix, where he did a little rodeoing in high school. After graduation, Fain went to Colorado, where he tried “rodeoing and bumming around.” But eventually, the money ran out and he moved back to Phoenix.
Back home, a friend called and told Fain they were hiring at the Grand Canyon. So he packed up and took a job as a laborer there in the spring of 1961. It was there he met Karen Johnson, who worked for the concessionaire in the cafeteria. She was in school at Snow College in Ephraim and talked him into enrolling at Arizona State University.
“But they didn’t treat cowboys well down there,” Fain said.
So when Karen got a job at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Fain transferred to Utah State University, where he studied photography. The couple were married in 1964.
Fain says his interest in rodeo photography can be traced back to Devere Helfrich, whom the National Cowboy Hall of Fame describes as the “Dean of Rodeo Photography.”
“He was getting good-quality images,” Fain said of Helfrich. “I’d look at his photographs in Western Horseman magazine, and that got me interested in rodeo photography.”
In the spring of 1961, Fain had three photographs published in Rodeo Sports News. Those were his first published images.
“And one of my first photos I got printed was just across the page from Devere Helfrich’s photos,” he said.
Fain split his time between rodeoing and photography throughout the 1960s and ’70s, until a series of injuries steered him into rodeo photography full time.
In 1967, at the Pleasant Grove rodeo, Fain was bucked off a horse and suffered a compound fracture in his right leg, just below the knee.
“My hospital bill at the time was a thousand dollars,” he said. “With Karen at Intermountain School, her Blue Cross insurance paid the medical bill, and I collected over $1,000 from PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association) insurance.
“It was the best summer of rodeoing I ever had,” he quipped.
The following year, at a rodeo in Preston, Idaho, Fain hung up on a horse and suffered a partial separation of his collarbone.
“That was my last bareback horse,” he said.
Fain went on to steer-wrestling after he healed up. But in 1979, he separated ribs on “a big, overweight steer,” and he switched to full-time rodeo photography that year.
Fain made the switch to digital photography in 2006. He says digital photographers don’t face the same challenges that film photographers did.
“Since photography has gone to digital, everybody’s a rodeo photographer these days,” he said. “But they haven’t had to breathe hypo fumes when you’re wet-processing in a hotel-room bathroom. They haven’t had to put a handkerchief over the faucet to filter out the oil droplets.”
But then again, it’s a bit of a trade-off, as Fain says digital can present its own set of problems.
“You have to fuss with laptops and printers that crap out,” he said.
Fain considers his greatest accomplishment his induction into the Utah Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Hall of Fame. He was also inducted into the Idaho Rodeo Hall of Fame. Fain says he’s also been blessed to be able to photograph the National Finals Rodeo for 15 years.
And 2020 will mark Fain’s 55th consecutive year at the Evanston Cowboy Days rodeo. If, that is, the coronavirus pandemic allows the Labor Day Weekend event in Evanston, Wyoming, to proceed.
“Hopefully, all of this is over by Memorial Day, so we can get back in the rodeo business,” Fain said. “A lot of the smaller rodeos just flat-out canceled, others moved their dates into the fall.”
Fain says he’s enjoyed the ride, and even with age 78 staring him in the face this August, he’s in no hurry to retire. Fain has been gradually scaling back his photography — he quit shooting the state high school finals rodeo about five years ago — but says he’d like to make it to 80. And beyond, if he can.
“I made a decent living and raised three kids,” he said. “I’m not in debt, but I’m not rich. We’re comfortable.
“But really, how much money do you need to live on?”