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Tapping into the sentient soul: The photography of Tracie Spence



By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – There’s something ethereal about Tracie Spence’s photographs—a wildness to her horses; the way they gaze directly at the camera with a palpable, almost unnerving, sense of recognition. She infuses this same sentient quality in the subject of her “Ghost Trees” series—snow-laden lodgepole pines become playful or stoic anthropomorphic spires; spindly aspens whisper secrets.

Spence attributes this quality to the spirituality she brings to every moment she deems special enough to capture with her camera. A highly attuned intuition, sharpened by her years as a practicing psychoanalyst, also guides her choice of a shot.

Spence, her husband and two daughters relocated to Big Sky from Laguna Beach, California, just three months ago, but the family has been vacationing in Big Sky for close to 15 years, and Spence has shown her work in Creighton Block Gallery for nearly two.

Admittedly prone to head injuries, the most serious of her nine concussions happened on Dec. 29, 2010, while skiing at Big Sky Resort. She hit a mogul, flipped back on her head, smashing the helmet she was wearing, and slid 60 feet down the slope.

“Within eight hours my entire personality had changed,” she said, explaining that she turned aggressive and mean, and her blood pressure was skyrocketing. In 18 hours, the swelling in her brain caused her to lose her vision.

She recovered slowly; her short-term memory was damaged and it was eight months before she could drive a car again.

“I did weird things like put the blender on the stovetop, turn it on and wait for the water to boil,” she recalled.

At the time of the accident, Spence was an ambitious freelance advertising photographer, relatively new to the industry but quickly building a name for herself.

The accident ended her burgeoning career, but in what turned out to be a blessing, it shifted her focus to fine art photography. She hasn’t looked back since.

“It reshaped my journey and I’m more grateful and happy with who I am today than who I was before [the accident],” Spence said. “I feel like I have a better appreciation for the fragility of life and how common it is not to notice or experience what’s right in front of you.”

This awareness comes through in Spence’s imagery, and elevates a huddle of trees, a still or streaking horse, to something more holy. Having a highly discriminating eye, and heart, also helps.

She may spend four days tracking wild mustangs in Montana’s Pryor Mountains and amass 10,000 images. Of those images 8,000 might be “damn good,” but Spence will pass over them until she finds a specialness she only knows when she comes across it.

“Maybe it’s not the perfect shot but it makes me feel the most,” Spence said.

Sometimes she won’t shoot at all. “Even if I have all the visual elements, if I don’t have that inner fire, or inspiration, I won’t photograph it,” she said.

When Spence feels the childlike excitement, awe and wonder that signal she is in a highly creative state, she tries to maintain that mood for the entirety of the shoot.

“When I feel that ‘wow’ moment, that’s when I shoot,” she said. “For me, everything is about ‘how does it make you feel; what does it make you think?’ I always like my work to be inviting more conversation, thought or feeling.”

Spence photographs wildlife in very much the same way she did fashion—sticking to clean backgrounds and playing with negative space. Rather than manipulate her images, which she seldom does, she will change her physical positon. For example, for “Puer Ateternis,” an image of a narrow-faced mustang with a long, windswept, dreadlocked mane, Spence dropped to her knees and contorted herself to the ground to get the angle she wanted.

Spence creates highly limited edition prints of her photographs, typically between three and nine, in total.

Excited to have such immediate access to the wilderness and the wildlife that inhabits it, Spence has wolves on her mind for her next series, although she will wait until her inner creative knowing tells her the time is right.

“The cool thing about [creating] fine art is that I’m not chasing something anymore—there’s no ego; there’s no mind; there’s no intellect in it,” Spence said. “I’m just following my heart now.”

Spence’s work is currently featured in an exhibition at Creighton Block Gallery that runs through Jan. 29, 2018. An artist reception will be held Friday, Dec. 29, from 5 to 7 p.m. Ten percent of sales will benefit the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.

To view more of the artist’s work visit or

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