Capturing the majesty of everyday prairie life, a Calgary-based photographer's new book serves as a loving tribute to the beauty of cowboy and ranching culture.
Acclaimed photographer Leah Hennel’s debut book Along the Western Front features a collection of images that capture the experience of contemporary cowboy culture and modern ranching in central and southern Alberta.
“I’m a prairie girl,” Hennel said. “I just love the prairies … I love the landscape, the big open sky, but also all the wildlife and history in Southern Alberta, I find, is just amazing.”
A collection of Hennel’s photographs spanning the past two decades have been carefully curated to create Along the Western Front.
“I photograph what appeals to me. If other people like them, that’s great, or they learn something new about someone else they didn’t know or about a different way of life then that’s even better,” Hennel said.
She described her work as photojournalistic photos that document the daily reality of life on the prairies.
The book spans the length of Hennel’s career going back to 1998 when she used film to shoot, to a recent digital photo from 2019.
“It’s neat to have your work all in one place to look at,” Hennel said. “I communicate through taking a photo and then people can interpret whatever they want."
She said she has made great friends along the way in the communities she visits and shoots. Hennel added that many of the places she visits feel like her second home.
While she said she enjoys exploring and capturing unique images, the most important aspect of her journeys has been what she has learned from the people she meets.
“All the photos I take especially of people, I would have none of this work if it wasn’t for them letting me into their homes and letting into their lives.”
Hennel found her passion for photography at a young age. She grew up reading National Geographic and loved the photography featured in the magazine. This passion was further fuelled by an opportunity to work for the Calgary Sun in Grade 10 as part of a work experience program.
“I went into the photo department and the darkroom and I just got hooked on photography,” Hennel said. “I just love meeting new people and learning about new cultures.”
She graduated from the SAIT photojournalism program in 1998 and went on to work for a daily newspaper for 20 years.
During that time when she covered challenging assignments, to re-charge she would grab her gear and head to the prairies.
The vast plains held special meaning for her, because her dad grew up on a farm in central Alberta near Stettler. She and her brother spent their summers going up to the family farm for branding on long weekends, or to watch her cousins and aunt barrel race.
“I was always around the ranching and farming lifestyle,” Hennel said.
“I really got into it when I starting going to southern Alberta and some of the ranches there, and the Hutterite colonies.”
Ironically though she is terrified of and allergic to horses, an animal that appears in many of her photos.
“It’s also hard to take photos on horseback,” Hennel said with a laugh.
Every journey into the prairies presents new and exciting opportunities to capture her love of the landscape with a shutter click, she said, explaining that when she takes off exploring her keen eyes look for the perfect light and moments of daily life on the ranch.
“To me, I think daily life is interesting,” Hennel said. “I find it fascinating, whether it’s a working mom on a ranch or sheep shearing at a Hutterite colony.”
The passion is a part of her and her camera is constantly by her side ready to capture the next striking image she comes across.
“I’m constantly looking for the light or another photo – driving in the prairies to me it looks different every time.”
Along the Western Front is published by Rocky Mountain Books and will be available in March 2020.