Born in 1925, the RCA’s first female photographer, Louise L. Serpa, grew up as a New York City-girl and graduated with a music degree from Vassar University. Originally, she committed to an East Coast life, but after a few journeys West, the cowboy life put its hooks in her.
Lewis Field behind the chute. New York born and bred, Serpa’s appreciation of cowboys took root during a childhood journey to Nevada.
"Kevin Small under Cotton Eye," Tucson Rodeo, 1989. In her later years at the Tucson arena, Serpa shot from a platform made especially for her so she wouldn’t have to duck and run to get her shot.
Glen Adair comes loose at the Santa Cruz County Fair in Sonoita, Ariz., in 1964. Serpa would often lie in the dirt for these shots.
"Jim Mihalek on Hud," Tucson Rodeo, 1971.
Serpa captured "Roy ‘Skeeter’ Humble riding in a dust storm" in Chandler, Ariz., in 1964
"Widow Maker," Ajo, Ariz.; 1963. Serpa was a predominately self-taught photographer and started her career with a $27 camera.
Serpa found her way into the rodeo arena not because she aspired to be a woman of note, but because she recognized a need for her skills—before her, nobody was photographing the kids in the arena. Once presented to her audience, Serpa’s photographs remained in high demand.
Often referred to as the “Ansel Adams of rodeo,” Serpa was a master of timing and perspective. In a film interview, she recalled the days of lying on her belly in the arena dirt and looking up at the bull because, simply, it was a great shot.
As revered as her photographs, however, is Serpa’s character. She is remembered as an integral part of the rodeo family—a friend who cared about the lives and well-being of her subjects and their families. Additionally, she was tough. Serpa’s daughter, photographer Mia LaRocque, recalls trying to help her mother after she was crushed during the wild horse race in Prescott, Ariz. In return, LaRocque was told “to shush up and get her a shot of tequila.”
Rodeo, Serpa’s book of photography, was published in 1995. In 1999 she was inducted into the Cowgirl Hall of Fame and then received the Tad Lucas Award in 2002. In 2005, the PRCA awarded her the title of Photographer of the Year. In 2012, Serpa’s three-year battle with cancer came to an end and rodeo mourned the loss of one of their greats.