10/03/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT
When Louise Serpa was a tomboy student at Chapin, the upper-crust Manhattan girls school, her Social Register mother used to fret, "Dear, you're so physical!" Indeed. By the time she was a grown woman, Louise had not just fled New York for the West but had also taken up a physical specialty: photographing the world of rodeo. In 1963 she became the first woman to be allowed to shoot pictures from inside a pro rodeo ring. Now, at 57, she recently won the Oscar of her trade, the silver buckle for Best Action Photo awarded by Prorodeo Sports News and Frontier Airlines. Says one of her admirers, team roper Richard Miller: "I have never seen it too windy, too dirty, too cold, too dangerous for her."
In pursuit of the perfect shot, she has been gored in the leg by a steer, kicked in the neck by a bronc and run over by a bull, cracking two ribs and her sternum in the process. "I feel strongly about the rodeo," she explains. "It's one of the few places where you can be taken at face value. It's not just the call of the wild. It's the whole combination of horses and freedom that I love."
That love took root at age 9, when her mother, Louise, took her along when she got a Nevada divorce from her banker father, Joseph Larocque. Years later, after Vassar and a proper marriage to another Easterner, Louise went West again—this time for her own Nevada divorce—and decided to stay. Then came a stormy, seven-year second marriage (two children) to Gordon Serpa, a handsome wrangler at a Carson City dude ranch. In 1960, the year after the divorce, friends took the financially strapped Louise to a Tucson children's rodeo. Impulsively, she jumped into the ring to snap the tykes riding calves. Though she had no training, she found she could sell her shots to the kids' parents—"for a whole 75 cents per!" Gradually she turned her hobby into a business—at first, to pay for treatment of her daughter Mia's rheumatoid arthritis. (Serpa's other daughter, Lauren, 27, is three years older than Mia.) Shooting up to 12 hours a day, then developing and printing her own film by night in a closet, she gradually won the confidence of rodeo sponsors and competitors.
Today Louise works out of a spacious adobe house in Vail, Ariz., where she still dries her own prints with an old hairdryer. "The rodeo is like a shot of adrenaline," she says. "Once in your blood, it never leaves you."