It’s interesting to watch a painter paint, a sculptor sculpt, or photographer take photographs. Interesting, but probably not exhilarating. Unless you’re the artist creating the art, there are only so many brushstrokes you can watch before the process loses its luster. On rare occasions, however, the method is as intriguing as the final product; the artist piques as much interest as their art.
Mary Peters is one such artist.
If you’ve attended any time-honored rodeo around the state, you’ve likely seen her—two gates back from the chute, squatting and knotted with her shoulder planted in the dirt. She contorts her body for that perfect shot, and you’d swear it’d make her as sore as those bucking bronc riders she’s photographing. But twisted in the arena is where she’s comfortable. In the dust and the action is where she wants to be.
“You’ll usually see me lying on the ground, hunched over sideways, kissing the dirt,” she laughs.
Peters has become famous for her photography, featured in publications such as National Geographic, PSN, and Western Horseman. The irony, she says, is that she knew very little about ranching or rodeoing when she began capturing the subject.
“It’s crazy that I’ve been so fortunate to be doing this. It seems like most people who are rodeo photographers are born into it,” she explains.
Peters is among an elite group of certified PRCA photographers in the state—but she’s certainly no elitist.
In fact, it’s probably her humility that has made her so adored by rodeo patrons.
“I love helping these smaller rodeos with their social media and marketing throughout the year. Helping with setup or tear down makes me feel like I am part of the committee,” she says. “I love these small communities and wooden arenas. You can smell the tradition in the dirt.”
Born and raised in Lewistown, Peters spent time on the East Coast before moving to Wyoming, where she photographed wildlife, weddings, and various milestones. In 2009, she moved with her family to Lavina to care for her in-laws at their ranch. It’s here that she got her first hands-on experience with the cowboy life.
It’s also where her experiences begin to blur.
In 2012, Peters suffered a major head injury. As a result, she developed spells of severe migraines, bouts of distorted vision, and loss of memory. Two whole years of her life were erased with one concussive blow.
In the aftermath, Peters had to relearn photography. In the rodeo arena she developed the techniques she uses today.
“I like to keep things simple. I use one camera and one lens. I choose my settings beforehand,” she explains. “I create my images in the camera.”
Peters doesn’t rely on rapid-shoot features or Photoshop touch-ups. She waits for the right moment and takes her shot.
“The horse and the cowboy are both athletes. I focus on the stock and don’t stop shooting ‘til the pickup men are back in the arena waiting for the chute to open,” she says. “So much of the rodeo story happens after the cowboy hits the dirt.”
Cowboys and cowgirls regularly compliment Peters on her photographs, but she says that they just as often tell her that they appreciate her quotes. Many of the photos she posts on social media come affixed with inspirational messages that she’s encountered over the years.
“Do it with passion or not at all.”
“Don’t ignore your own potential.”
“Champions don’t show up to get everything they want; they show up to give everything they have.”
Each of these is paired with an image of a rider holding on for glory (or dear life), but the words reflect the woman behind the photographs as well.
“It’s kind of like a writer’s dream, right? I came back from this brain injury and now I’m here,” she says. “Honestly though, I’m just so grateful.”
Through great talent and (perhaps) good fortune, Peters has become one of the most talked about and sought-after rodeo photographers in the industry. In 2019, she was named the official photographer of the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. In the event’s nearly seventy-year-old history, no other photographer has been granted this distinction.
“It is such an honor,” she says.
Peters isn’t defined by her brain injury, but by her strength of will. When she’s in the arena—with the broncs kicking, the riders airborne, and the bleachers alive with cheering fans—in these moments, she is confident. She is whole.
The concussion’s effects are everlasting, but so too is the therapeutic nature of art.