Inducted in 2007
The National Cowboy Hall of Fame describes Inductee DeVere Helfrich as the “Dean of Rodeo Photography.” ProRodeo Sports News declared him “the world’s greatest rodeo photographer” and, following his 1981 death, stated Helfrich “will forever be ranked as one of the top rodeo photographers of all time, no matter who comes along with what degree of talent in the future.”
DeVere Helfrich was a premier rodeo photographer of the “golden age” of post-World War II professional rodeo. Born near Prineville, Oregon, in 1902, Helfrich learned cowboying on his Uncle Walt McCoin’s Bend, Oregon ranch. “He never rodeoed, but he had his own horse and they had moved cattle,” daughter Delores Scott recalled. “So he knew how animals thought and acted better than a lot of people.”
DeVere married Helen Grace Reed in 1926 and worked in the irrigation business and as an ice cream maker until World War II. When wartime food ingredients rationing made his ice cream business untenable, Helfrich searched for another profession. He had long been a proficient hobbyist in photography. Combining this expertise with his ranch background and love of the sport of rodeo, DeVere, with Helen at his side, entered the world of rodeo photography.
DeVere and Helen Helfrich traveled the rodeo road for twenty-five years, shooting thousands of rodeo photographs and selling them to competitors, contractors, family members, fans, magazines, newspapers, and rodeo organizations. “My dad took all the action shots and mother took all the posed pictures,” daughter Darle Runnels remembered. Initially the Helfrich’s developed their photographs in makeshift motel bathroom ‘darkrooms,’ but “in the fifties,” Runnels recalled, “They bought a trailer and made part of it into a darkroom.”
The Helfrich’s sold most of their photographs to stock contractors and the cowboys themselves. One of their most popular products was postcards that rodeo hands used for personalized greetings and correspondence. Runnels joked, “Mom and dad were always happy when a cowboy got a new girlfriend or a new wife because sometimes the ex would throw away or take off with all the pictures and they’d order a whole new set: ‘Give me everything you ever got of me’ “!
The Ellensburg Rodeo was an annual stop in DeVere Helfrich’s busy schedule, and he shot hundreds of memorable photographs in the Ellensburg arena. John Ludtka, former Daily Record editor, historian, and ERHOF Inductee, remembers Helfrich was the “go-to” man for sharp, publishable photographs of every cowboy or critter on the professional rodeo circuit. “Helfrich had a complete historic archive, and he was Johnny on the spot” with new shots. Ludtka recalls. “He shot them and worked all night in his darkroom to have them ready. You could depend on him and his price was right.” Several of Helfrich’s images adorn Ludtka’s The Tradition Lives On: A 75-year History of the Ellensburg Rodeo.
Asked how he shot his vivid arena photographs, Helfrich noted, “I like to work 30 to 40 feet from the action. The photographer has to be in time with the horse, not just the rider.” His daughter Delores Scott recalled his preparing for shots and where he would station himself by discussing each animal’s style with the cowboys themselves. Delores’ revelation that Helfrich had severe eyesight problems makes his success even more impressive: “Daddy had (sight in) only one eye,” she stated. “I don’t think anybody who ever rodeoed with him ever knew that…(but) he had better vision than any of the rest of the family with that one eye.”
DeVere and Helen Helfrich retired in 1967, but continued traversing the West by automobile, taking photographs, and writing books. They published illustrated histories about the Oregon Trail and a series of oral histories, Klamath Echoes.
DeVere Helfrich died of cancer in 1981. In 1991, he was inducted, posthumously, into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. Forty thousand of DeVere Helfrich’s photographs are today housed in the archives of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, ensuring his giant legacy for the preservation of the history and traditions of North American rodeo.