The Other Side of the Lens

I have been a professional photographer for nearly 12 years now. In all that time I have seldom been on the other side of the lens. Every once in a while I have done a self-portrait — just for fun. I remember having a toy Nikon that could flip around in an odd way and I could take my own picture, that was fun. Or I would set up my camera, get the composition just so, then run to get myself into place before the timer fired the shutter for me. Those were always fun. One of my favorites where I set up the camera and ran is a shot of me in Ireland. I took this portrait of myself at the Cliffs of Moher. If you look really closely, you’ll see that my eyes are shut. Dang it.

There is a series of photos my friend Leah took of me one year when I went to visit her in Oregon. I found the prints, but I can’t seem to find the digital files tonight. So I will pass on those for tonight.

The single most amazing photo ever taken of me is an image by one of my best friends and also my photography mentor Tim Webb. This photo was taken of me days after my mother’s funeral.

Because my father served in Vietnam he is buried in Camp Nelson National Cemetery. I have always loved military cemeteries. The perfect rows of gleaming white headstones. Of course, who would expect anything less that orderly and uniform from the military? The way things work at Camp Nelson, a wife can be buried with her husband. I suppose the rule is a spouse can be buried with his or her spouse. In my case the veteran is my father, so his information is carved on the front of the stone. My mother, who is listed as “his wife” has her name, dates and info carved on the back of the stone.

I was in a pretty raw place emotionally at this time. Both of my parents dead within two years. It was unfathomable for me. Tim was great. I can’t remember if these photos were his idea, I think they must have been, but I really can’t remember… Anyhow, my time in Kentucky was running out. Soon I would have to get back to my job and my life in Kansas. But before I went, we went out to Camp Nelson and Tim did a series of photos of me there. This was the first time I was ever the subject of an “editorial portrait.” A portrait specifically intended to be a story-telling photo. I remember the night he did these photos so clearly. What I treasure most is the memory of being able to drop my guard and let Tim take this because I trust him. To let another person in when emotions are running that high is difficult. It’s hard for the subject of the photograph and speaking for myself, it’s hard to be the photographer as well. But when you have someone you can trust, opening up becomes at least possible. Truth has at least the potential to be revealed. And sometimes a rare moment is captured and can be held onto. This photo is one of the decisive moments of my life. I cherish it.

But that was 2003 and since then I haven’t been photographed much. I avoid being the subject of a photo. Ironic since I spend my life aiming the camera at other people, but there it is. I finally decided it was time to change that. So, last week I contacted my friend and fellow photographer Kat Gebauer and asked her to take some portraits of me. Kat and I had team photographed Jesse’s wedding just a few weeks ago and I like both Kat and her work. It just felt right. It felt like it was time. Kat graciously agreed to be my photographer and on Saturday morning we met in Whitefish for an early morning portrait session.

It’s 7:45 up at the golf course in Whitefish. The day prior Kat and I had both considered canceling and rescheduling because a winter storm was coming in and on Friday morning at 9 a.m. it was still just a few degrees lighter than pitch black. As luck would have it we kept the time and we were treated to a an incredible sunrise. It was the perfect morning for photos. The sun was mostly muted by the deep fog that rolled in over the lake.

This thumbnail image of the lake, that’s all I have from that morning. I wasn’t out there to take photos, I was there to have my picture taken. I wanted these photos for my website. I still need to join Facebook. Lord have mercy on me I have been avoiding this, but more and more it becomes apparent, there is no escaping social networking. I figured a new set of portraits would be a good idea for my soon-to-exist facebook page. And I wanted to have these done as a kind of personal celebration. Still a documentation of my life, only this time, I had to trust another photographer to be the eyes behind the shots.

I love Kat’s photos. I am so pleased with these. And so of course, here they are with a home on my blog. This was a good reminder for me. It’s so easy for me to aim a camera that I sometimes forget how hard it can be to have a camera aimed at you. Kat was wonderful and she made this pretty easy for me, but still…it is worth remembering that being the subject is not all that easy. I have found myself approaching my subjects this week with a renewed respect for how hard it is to be the one on the other side of the lens. I hope I can reach out to the people I photograph and offer them the kind of trust that I found when Tim photographed me. It’s only when a person’s guard is down that they really let themselves be seen.

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A Childhood Love Revisited

When I was a little girl I loved horses. Specifically I loved unicorns, but since there weren’t a whole lot of those roaming around the deserts of Saudi Arabia I settled for loving horses. Their beauty and grace. Their freedom. The exhilaration I always feel when I see them run. And growing up in the desert I got to see one of the world’s most exquisite breed — the Arabians — in their natural habitat. To this day I love those horses. To my eyes there is nothing that compares to the sight of an Arabian running. Seeing them I am transported to my childhood, to the story of the Black Stallion and the golden dunes of home. These will always have a place in my heart and so I tend to love that which reminds me of them.

Last week I was fortunate enough to make the trek down to Drummond, Mont., to watch a herd of Morgans being rounded up and brought home for the winter. The Morgan horses are lovely. There is something playful, kind of spritely about their look. They have wonderful manes and long curly bangs that make them look mischievous. And they posses the same power and grace characteristic of those animals. The photos from the roundup are going to be our Montana Life feature this week for the Daily Inter Lake.

The Montana Life section comes out every Sunday. It’s a photographer’s showcase of sorts, a section designed to be carried by photos rather than text. Normally we get to submit between five and eight photographs. That’s a luxury when most assignments have only room for one or two pictures to tell the tale. This will be the second or third Montana Life feature that I have not only photographed, I’ve also written the story to go with it.

Years ago I went to school and majored in journalism and philosophy. I wanted to be a writer. But along the way I fell in love with photography and never looked back. Now almost twelve years into the game I have started testing those old writing skills. I genuinely enjoy getting to tell the whole story – not just the visual pieces. Fortunately the people I work with have been encouraging. I know I have a long way to go as far as professional writing, but I do enjoy it. And so I have begun looking for projects like this one where I can both write and shoot. Projects that really feel as if I own them.

I’m sure my editors will will have corrections to make to this, but I have decided to post the roundup story as I wrote it here. After all, if you’re reading my blog you must like my writing at least a little. So, here it is this week’s Montana Life feature — photos and story by Brenda Ahearn.

An unknown author once wrote of horses that if God made anything more beautiful, he kept it for himself.

It’s morning when the family arrives the Duff Place, the old Duff homestead, near Drummond. The light is soft and the air is crisp and cool. Ed and Valerie Radtke, their daughter Sally Anderson, and her son Angus have made the trek down from Bigfork to the family ranch to round up the horses that have spent their summer running free.

They come up the long drive into the ranch passing a small pocket of cattle along the way. Pulling in near the barn they disembark from their trucks and walk up toward the hills knowing that soon their Morgans will break the crests and make their way down to the corral. Bradley Radtke is up their somewhere in his cowboy hat and jeans, riding a four-wheeler and pitting his will to round up the horses against the will of the herd.

“There’s an excitement that goes along with the round up,” says Radtke. “When you look at their speed, their endurance, just seeing them is enough to get that adrenaline rush.”

The morning’s quiet is suddenly broken as the herd of unbridled horses first comes into view. They don’t want to leave the pasture. Brad watches, predicting which way the horses will run and where he needs to be in order to move them in the direction he wants them to go. He says he enjoys the round up more when he’s on horseback, but with only one person bringing the horses in the ATV make the process considerably less difficult.

Awestruck could easily be the word of the day. Everyone watches as the horses make their way to the edge of the hill. They push back and forth fighting the descent, but eventually Brad is able to head them off and they begin to thunder down.

“These horses are majestic,” says Valerie Radtke. “They have a freedom — you so seldom get to see that in this world any more. We still get to see that side of them as they come up over the top of that hill.”

Beautiful as they are, there is work to be done. Ed and Sally go to open the gates. Brad keeps steering the horses, jutting off as needed, constantly moving them forward. Valerie keeps a close eye on Angus, because a curious five-year-old at three feet, five inches is no match for a herd of horses some of which stand as high as 15 hands.

There are 11 horses which will be taken north; three mares, one filly, one colt, four yearlings and three two-year-olds. That’s actually 12 in the herd, but one has already been sold.

Once they’re up in Bigfork they’ll spend their winter in training before most of them are returned to the ranch the following June. The horses have between four and a half and five months out on the ranch, but a lot happens in those months.

“On the ranch they learn to be horses, they learn how to function in a herd the way horses do in the wild. They grow up,” says Valerie Radtke. “When they’re with us, we handle them daily. The summer in the pasture gives them the opportunity to develop the way that horses were meant to. It’s a healthier environment in general, and for the horses it’s more of what nature intended for them.”

The benefits of this summer of freedom for the horses are manifold. “The horses stay in shape out here,” says Sally Anderson. “They are exercising daily. This environment is good for their growth, it creates good hoof strength,  dense bones, and increases their stamina. Additionally these horses will become excellent trail horses. They will have learned to cross creeks and navigate the hillsides. They will be accustomed to rough terrain.”

Why Morgans? The family’s connection to Morgan horses goes back to 1961. Ed’s father, Marvin Radtke, was looking to add horses to the ranch. He purchased Leota, a Morgan mare, bred her to Luzan and began the registration prefix MoAna. Ed got Kootenai Madi’s Girl and with her began the EMR horses. Three years ago in 2007 Sally picked up the MoAna prefix, carrying on her grandfather’s tradition.

“It’s a love. That’s why we do this,” says Valerie Radtke. “We love what we do. And we love the Morgans because of their minds. They have good, strong minds. They are trainable. They have endurance. They are sure-footed and they have hard feet for mountain riding. They have very few negative attributes, few hereditary problems.”

“I know there will be someone reading this who  loves Quarter horses and thinks the same is true of that breed, but for us it’s Morgans. We like the intelligence and the personalities of these horses.”

The horses gather in the corral and decisions are made about which horses will ride in which trailer. Three will go with Sally, the other eight will ride with Ed and Valerie. Ed and Brad begin separating the horses, preparing for the three-hour trek home.

Summer is officially over and soon the work will begin. The horses will train through the winter. Foaling usually takes place in April or May, breeding in May or early June. And when summer comes along again it will be time to pack up the herd again and return them to the ranch for another idyllic summer of freedom.

“I don’t like paddock horses,” says Ed Radtke. “Our horses always summer out in the mountains. We want to get them out to where they can be what they were meant to be. If you have a horse who only lives in a little pen, or a stall, they never learn how to be free.”

“Out in the hills they learn freedom; they learn to run, to play, and to interact with each other. This is where they are meant to be — out here — free.”