Renowned rodeo photographer James Fain, who had a remarkable career spanning 60 years, passed away on May 10 at the age of 80. Fain’s journey began in Logan, Utah, his hometown, where the Cache County Fair and Rodeo marked the end of his illustrious tenure in ProRodeo on August 13, 2022.
Although born in Iowa, Fain was raised in Arizona, where his fascination with rodeo first took root. In an August 19, 2022, interview with the ProRodeo Sports News, Fain recalled his early involvement as a contestant when a grade school friend convinced him to participate in the Phoenix Jaycees Junior Rodeo. Competing in calf riding, Fain humorously admitted, “I fell off.”
While his time as a competitor was sporadic, Fain developed a keen interest in the sport. He jokingly distinguished himself from other contestants, quipping, “I got on them, that was about it.” Fain tackled bareback riding, bull riding, and steer wrestling, reflecting on the challenges and dispelling any romantic notions associated with the so-called “good old days.”
Despite his personal struggles, Fain’s fascination with rodeo persisted. As he mingled with a Western crowd, he found himself captivated by Western Horseman magazine’s rodeo stories featuring the photographs of Devere Helfrich, the official photographer of the then Rodeo Cowboys Association. Intrigued by these images, Fain dabbled in photography himself, armed with a modest camera, capturing moments at junior rodeos.
In 1961, at the age of 19, Fain achieved his first published photos in the Rodeo Sports News, the precursor to the PSN (ProRodeo Sports News), coincidentally featured alongside Helfrich’s work. The following year, he acquired his RCA (Rodeo Cowboys Association) card. Fain shared his early experiences, recalling his initial shot of Ronnie Rossen in Douglas, Arizona, where the action was excellent but the focus slightly off. Undeterred, he reminisced about other successful photos in subsequent issues, including a bareback rider in Brawley, California, and a saddle bronc in Payson, Arizona, showcasing improved focus.
Fain’s photographic expertise made his images highly sought-after by contestants and media outlets alike. Adapting to evolving technology, he seamlessly transitioned from film processing, often in motel bathrooms on the road, to uploading digital photos on a laptop. Fain admitted that even with modern autofocus capabilities, capturing the perfect shot remained elusive. While color photography offered striking images, his affinity for black and white persisted.
Over the years, Fain faced various challenges, but he approached them with a lighthearted perspective. He found bull riding to be the easiest to photograph, particularly saddle broncs, thanks to the Wrights’ influence. Fain celebrated his 50th year photographing PRCA rodeos at the Evanston Cowboy Days in Wyoming. During his illustrious career, he was honored as ProRodeo’s Photographer of the Year twice and covered significant events such as the National Finals Rodeo, Dodge National Circuit Finals Rodeo, National High School Finals, College National Finals Rodeo, Indian National Finals, and numerous other ProRodeos, Utah High School rodeos, and college rodeos.
Fain’s talent also earned him a place among the photographers at the Command Performance Rodeo organized by the PRCA at Maryland’s Capital Centre on September 24, 1983. This exclusive event, graced by special guests President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, hosted 10,249 government dignitaries, including ambassadors from 46 foreign countries.