Exhibition Review: Delta Hill Riders
By Maura Monaghan
In one wood-paneled Chelsea pub at the foot of the High Line, the arts are still thriving through bimonthly photojournalism displays and literary readings. The Half King on 23rd street is a bastion of creative thought, hosting artistic events with a conversational tone and warmly engaging atmosphere. One such event was the opening of Rory Doyle’s Delta Hill Riders, an exhibition documenting African-American cowboy culture in the rural Mississippi Delta.
Born in Maine and now based in Cleveland, Mississippi, for nearly ten years, Doyle saw this project as an opportunity to document a community that has largely gone unnoticed. In a region usually associated with poverty, blues history and not much else, Doyle’s photographs illuminate a vibrant subculture that defies the typical mythology of the American cowboy.
The emergence of rail transportation in the 19th century reduced the need for herders to physically drive cattle across state lines, which restricted the cowboy lifestyle to mostly landowners–excluding a disproportionate amount of African-Americans. The opportunity to own land and, with it, the resurgence of Black cowboys has arrived particularly late in Mississippi, a state historically riddled with discrimination for longer than most of its Southern neighbors.
With these factors in mind, the Half King exhibition fittingly opened on Juneteenth, the anniversary of the June 19th, 1865 announcement of abolition in Texas and emancipation across the Confederacy. From this project, it’s clear that Doyle is aware of his presence in the cowboys’ space; he says that he has so far been “welcomed like family,” and that it is meaningful for him to have been accepted so graciously.
The Delta cowboys in Doyle’s photographs have created a community around their love of riding. For them, it is “an opportunity to be connected with a common passion,” and provides a unifying hobby across varying day jobs and school schedules. That passion is palpable in images that capture what Doyle listed as four different ‘categories’ of the Delta cowboy life: performative rodeo, casual trail riding, organized horse shows, and a lively R&B and soul-fueled nightlife for all ages.
One particular triumph of the collection is its candid photos, which give viewers insight into moments as small as they are memorable; the kind that often go undocumented. Some scenes outside of a McDonald’s restaurant capture the youthful energy that seems to exist, irrepressible and amorphous, wherever kids gather. As far as the antics that go on in the parking lot, Doyle says, “sometimes they’ll go through the drive-thru on their horse and order a Big Mac.” But there is also a sense of responsibility and care rooted in riding: “these kids seem to grasp that if you have a horse, you need to take care of it.”
Delta Hill Riders is an ongoing project, and Doyle plans to expand its focus to further document the cowboys’ lives outside of riding. In addition to stunning pictures on the trails, he has also photographed people engaging in other aspects of identity, from nightlife to cowboy church services. The draw of these photographs, and what unites them tonally, is the humanity that is actively sought out and conveyed in each shot.