How do you surprise the well-known photographer and horseman, John Beckett?

First, you tip off the cashier, Hana, while waiting.  “Hey you like, Oprah? A photographer‘s coming in that…”  Beckett arrives. 

Hana, modest and disbelieving that anyone connected to Oprah could be in her Scottsdale café, asks, “Is it true?”  

“Yes,” says John.

Hana hesitates, “Is it… true?” 

“Yesssss,” says John, amused.

He has met and photographed Oprah for USA Weekend and King Productions, but Oprah is not what he wants to be remembered for. The same goes for the Addy and Clio awards he could brag about. 

What’s closest to his heart are the everyday heroes he has captured with his lens including generals who can “push the button,” politicians who can “influence the country,” judges who can “change the nation” and…cowboys.

Growing up in Milwaukee, he dreamed about soldiers, cowboys, horses, women in swimsuits, and airplanes.  He flunked the 4th grade because he loved drawing them, all of the time, even in class.

Cowboying, it’s a place in my heart

Many things shape a man and for John that includes Saturday matinees featuring Westerns on the big screen.  As a child, he discovered what he calls the “code of the West,” which means “doing the right thing when nobody else is looking.”  Cowboy-up.

He also had strong role models including his parents, both of whom had Master of Science degrees in Sociology.   His father was a manager over Milwaukee’s public housing projects.  His mother took care of the family and was the first nurturer of John’s creativity.  She believed in him.

John was also surrounded by people who merited respect.  His godfather was Ralph Metcalfe, Olympian and former Illinois Congressman.  Jesse Owens and others were frequent visitors.  John babysat Hank Aaron’s children. It all seemed normal. 

A major influence in his photographic career was an extended visit at age seven to Grandma Della Mae Battle’s house in Greenville, North Carolina.  He remembers peacocks, lawns, houses, white summer suits, gloves, hats, professional society and big-bosomed women from the Garden Club hugging him.

“Having that growing up experience probably gave me an appreciation of a ‘gentler’ style of life traditions. Maybe a glimpse of how that Great Gatsby lifestyle was actually lived by a select few blacks in America in the early 50' least how they tried to live it.”

He came to cowboying as an adult, working six years on and off at a friend’s ranch in Montana, rounding up and branding cattle, while maintaining his photography business in Chicago.  He was actually living in White Plains at that time with four cars, but no horse.  He had a porch to sit on with his wife, but had to make many 360-mile roundtrips into Chicago for work.  The Becketts sold the cars and moved to the Southwest.

Some say if you live in Arizona and you have horses, then you’re a cowboy. Others say it’s attitude, it’s heart.  John, a photographer, comes home now to horses, he cleans stalls, and runs a small ranch. He lives the lifestyle.  “Don't get me started on cowboying. It's a place in the heart.”

Carmela Kelly