By Amanda Eggert EBS Associate Editor
BOZEMAN – At 24 years old, Louise Johns has already hit a major milestone in a photojournalist’s career: her name appears below a photograph in National Geographic.
But it wasn’t a fluke, one of those happenstance right-place-right-time moments you sometimes hear photographers recount. Johns has been working on a project centering on the Andersons, a ranching family in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for five years.
She’s tended to their horses, looked after the youngest Andersons, and stayed at their ranch in Tom Miner Basin as often as her schedule has allowed. Now they barely take notice when she raises her camera to take a photo.
Johns said the time she’s spent with the family sans camera has enabled her to take photos like the one that landed in the pages of the May 2016 issue. “I feel like that’s how you make those better, deeper pictures,” she said.
The Young Explorer grant Johns received from National Geographic will help her continue to document the lives of the Andersons. She plans to continue this work for a long time—maybe even the rest of her life. “They’re that special to me,” she said, adding that Montana feels more like home to her than Virginia, where she grew up.
Johns counts Hilary Anderson, the kids’ mother, among her friends. The family’s grown by two in the time she’s known them, and she’s watched the kids’ connection to the landscape deepen.
“I think that’s my favorite part of the whole project,” Johns said. “These children are so much more connected to this place than most people are anywhere … It’s sort of this mix of wild and domestic, but it’s been there for so long that it feels like it’s very deep rooted in the people.”
Located just north of Yellowstone National Park, Tom Miner Basin is a sprawling landscape of sagebrush and evergreen forests interspersed with aspen stands. Johns tries to spend as much time in Tom Miner as possible during the months of August and September, when grizzlies commonly range through the basin.
Johns, who spent a summer in college working as a wrangler at the J Bar L ranch in the Centennial Valley of southwest Montana, is drawn to documenting progressive ranching practices like those of the Andersons family. Hilary Anderson, a wolf biologist by training, co-founded a range-rider program in Tom Miner to reduce conflicts between livestock and predators by increasing human presence on the landscape.
Johns said a knack for horses—for a time in high school, she considered riding professionally—has come in handy in her photojournalism career.
Although she started her studies at the University of Montana in the print journalism department, Johns quickly became hooked on the storytelling potential of photojournalism. Her talent was celebrated in a July 28 story on National Geographic’s website, where she was named one of the magazine’s “20 under 30: The Next Generation of National Park Leaders” as part of the magazine’s coverage of the National Park Service centennial.
Johns says it helps that she had an awareness of the vocation growing up: Before taking the helm as National Geographic’s editor-in-chief, Louise’s father Chris traveled the globe on assignment for the iconic publication. Johns said her dad never pushed her toward photography, but he’s been supportive of her decision to pursue it.
It doesn’t seem fitting to compare Johns’ work to her father’s given his long tenure as a photojournalist, but Louise said she’s starting to notice similarities in the way they look through a viewfinder.
“[It’s] the way he picks up on these very subtle moments of life,” Johns said. “When he coaches me through my photographs, he points out all the little things that make a difference.”
Johns’ image that appeared in the Yellowstone National Park issue of National Geographic captures one such moment. In it, a 4-year-old wearing a shiny blue dress and matching tennis shoes chases a red ball down a dirt driveway toward a faded farmhouse. Beyond the old homestead, there’s a meadow, a snowcapped ridge, and little else. The scene is open and almost lonesome—but striking too.
Johns says a little technical savvy is essential for modern photojournalists, but there’s something deeper that can’t necessarily be learned. It involves engaging with people and seeing the world in a certain kind of way, she says.
Remaining present in the moment, Johns says, can allow photographers to create timeless imagery. “You can turn it into an actual piece of art that could live forever.”