The Intimacy of Place with Louise Johns

Today we’re pleased to share our conversation with Louise Johns. Louise is a documentary photographer and National Geographic Explorer based in Montana. Her work examines the relationships between people, place, and animals, with a particular focus on rural, agricultural and indigenous communities. She began documenting the landscapes and people of the American West while working as a horse wrangler in Montana’s Centennial Valley.

She has a master’s degree in Environmental Science Journalism from the University of Montana. She works with a variety of outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic, The Nature Conservancy, and Patagonia, to name a few. What’s more impressive than all of this is the work itself. Louise’s imagery captures those quiet intimate moments that take place at the intersection of people and place. She is well known for her immersion into the people and the place — and not just for the story, but for the sake of community itself.

As Johns said in her Ted Talk, media today often tends to be extractive; get what you need for the story and move on to the next assignment, often with the story already outlined before going out in the field. This parachute journalism, in which the storyteller has little or no experience or relationship with the subject, is really problematic in the American West, where nuance, trust, and context are so important. As you’ll hear in this conversation, Louise’s work is the opposite of extractive. She’s spent years working and living in the Greater Yellowstone region, seeking to intimately know the place, the people, and the wildlife as well as those who have lived there for generations.

If you’re in the Bozeman area or passing through, be sure to check out Louise’s upcoming gallery show, titled Touched by Landscape, at Old Main Gallery. The opening is on September 10th at 5:30 pm. A portion of the proceeds of this show will be donated directly to the Women in Ranching program! Thank you to Louise for this generous gift.

Here are some words from Louise about her upcoming show:

“I want to share these photographs because they evoke the intimate connection between people, their animal partners and the places they live.  Living in harsh but spectacular landscapes, they have developed a keen understanding of and respect for their environment.  I admire their dedication to the land, and their appreciation for all that inhabits it.”   

Touched By Landscape represents moments of affection for the places we call home. 

Learn more about the show here:


Topics Discussed

3:30 – How Louise came to Montana

4:00 – Stepping away from competitive horseback riding

4:18 – Growing up on a farm in Virginia 

4:40 – Going to University of Montana 

5:25 – Becoming connected to place

5:55 – Working as a wrangler in Centennial Valley 

6:00 – Discovering stewardship and the “actual” ranching life

7:14 – Becoming a photojournalist and moving to Tom Miner Basin

8:15 – Working as an assistant on the Yellowstone Issue of National Geographic

8:30 – Getting a National Geographic grant to document ranching with predators

9:40 – Meeting her partner at the Anderson Ranch in Tom Miner Basin

12:29 – Always striving to show real life and real people in their context

13:01 – Mentions Bill Allard, a renowned photographer of the West

13:20 – Building trust as a photographer

14:25 – Photographing from the inside

15:00 – Understanding people’s real lives in order to share their story

15:40 – Ongoing work: Native American efforts to restore bison to their reservations in Montana and Canada

17:20 – Building trust, relationships, and understanding the history of Native American cultures

18:24 – What gives you hope? Seeing people steward the land

19:20 – Living and ranching in an intact ecosystem 

21:13 – “Stewardship is living in a way that is not human-centric.”

23:00 – Amber asks Louise to share what advice she would give to people who are not where they want to be

Links from this episode

Check out this piece by Louise from the inaugural issue of On Land, Picturing Rural Life in the West: Katie Geary Comes Home




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Thank you to Molly Manthei, whose art is featured in the opening of the video. Check her out on Instagram!

On Land is a production of Western Landowners Alliance, a non-profit that advances policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species. Learn more about WLA’s Women in Ranching program here.

Hosted by Amber Smith

Produced by Zach Altman

Theme music by Jason Shaw

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Amber Smith has been living and working in rural America since 2004, beginning at The Home Ranch in Colorado, where she worked as a wrangler. She and her husband are currently raising their two children and working to steward a 53,000-acre ranch in Cohagen, Montana. She is the director of the Women in Ranching program of the Western Landowners Alliance.