CNN Photos

Ranching in the American West

The American West suggests big skies, endless terrain and striking wildlife. Here, the sun illuminates the vast landscape allowing thoughts — and animals — to run free.

When photojournalist Louise Johns looked through her viewfinder last summer at J Bar L Ranch in southwest Montana, she saw more than just the rich hues and rustic tones associated with the countryside.

Looking beyond the cumulus clouds and cowboy boots, she captured the core of human experience: the relationships shared between man and land, and man and animal.

Johns originally shot this gallery for her own enjoyment during summer break from college. She’s still an undergraduate student with one semester to go, but at 22 she’s a passionate professional, taking photos of a topic that resonate deeply with her: how people live and interact with nature and, in particular, horses.

Johns first discovered J Bar L Ranch during a school photography trip. They called her the following summer to offer her a job — as a farmhand, not photographer. But she jumped at the opportunity.

It was there that she captured how we sync with one another. Her camera halting emotion at one moment in time, she said it came naturally, almost unconsciously. “I don’t even remember taking the pictures,” she said. “I just let it come out the way it should. It was just an extension of who I was when I was there.”

These photographs encapsulate the essence of life on a ranch. From horses’ hair to the dust in the air, every moment is heightened by the warm Western atmosphere cast upon Earth’s subjects.

Though the job did not come without struggles.

As a wrangler, she could not take her camera everywhere with her. She said she felt guilty for not being able to photograph every beautiful scene. But she learned it is OK to miss some shots. It helped humble her, she said.

Johns’ commitment and dedication to mastering human/animal photography are qualities that translated from growing up around — and on top of — horses.

Originally from the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she has a long history of competing in equestrian events. She even went all the way to the National Junior & Young Riders Championships, but she turned down that lifestyle in order to show a different side of horses.

She said her pictures are more about “delivering a feeling” rather than being dramatic.

“I guess you can say I have a ‘quiet’ style,” she said. “I’m quiet and gentle. These photos reflect that; they are very much ‘me.’ Photography is who you are as a person. It can’t not be.”

- Michelle Cohan, CNN