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Photos by Audrey Hall
Interview by Ross Ewald
Photographer Audrey Hall and writer Chase Reynolds Ewald have published six Western lifestyle books together over the past 11 years. Here, they discuss their upcoming book Bison: Portrait of an Icon, the comeback story of an animal that was hunted to near extinction in the late 19th century. Bison weaves together Hall’s photography and Ewald’s writing with a foreword from writer and filmmaker John Heminway and an essay by Montana Poet Laureate Henry Real Bird to paint a picture of the U.S. National Mammal’s history and significance.
CM: How is this project different from past books you’ve co-authored?
Audrey: Bison is very different, because it was created in a pandemic, so Chase and I actually never were in the same place during the process. And initially we both had the reaction of, ‘Whoa, this is a very large topic.’
Chase: It was a challenge because it was a departure from the subjects I usually write about, but it was a challenge in a really good way. It was a great experience for me to try to paint a portrait, so to speak, of this iconic animal and bring together all these voices in a compelling narrative.
CM: This is your first book together that captures animals—is the photography process different at all?
Audrey: It’s completely different—you’re just at the mercy of so many things. Basically, my approach is to just roll with whatever’s happening. It’s not like you can ask these animals to stand here or do this or do that, and you certainly can’t control the weather. I wanted to celebrate the animal, and I wanted to celebrate the landscape, which the animal is of. I would plan the seasonality of it, and then I would just hope for the best. You can plan all you want, but then stuff happens, and you basically have to wing it. Even if the circumstances were not ideal, I never left the shoot without images. So many times I showed up when there was magic unfolding, and I was just trying to capture what was happening in real-time in front of me in a beautiful, artistic, sensitive way.
CM: Do you have any favorite images from the book?
Audrey: One of my favorite images is the Bound Bison. That was a heroic effort on the part of so many people and it just was so amazing when it came together. Oddly in the beginning, it wasn’t a bison: It was a horse, a horse wrapped in an American flag, so I took one of my model horses and I made a model study and I wrapped it. People would gravitate to the piece—they would want to talk about it. What was most interesting is that the interpretation of it varied from viewer to viewer, so it was something where the viewer would tell me the meaning instead of the other way around; it would all be based on where they were from or their relationship to the flag.
Somewhere along the process I changed gears and I thought, actually, maybe it’s not a horse, maybe it’s a bison. And then I thought, the only way to do it is really to find a full-size taxidermied bison. I had help from Tom Rogers, a Native American friend of mine who’s Blackfeet, and he introduced me to the tribal Council of Chiefs. I went to a meeting and we found somebody who had one and was willing to lend it.
Then I started getting into the weeds of how to actually make this thing, and then we just did it, and that was that. There are these three iconic elements: the icon of the bison, the icon of the American flag, and the icon of the landscape. How people interpret it is based on their own relationship to those three things. Then the final layer is this concept of binding something to show its shape and how people interpret that.
I feel fortunate that I was able to do it where I did and have the help that I did, so that makes that piece really special to me. What I love most about it is that people have such a strong, visceral response and opinion. To have people come to you and say, “This is what I think it means,” over and over and over again, unprompted—that to me signifies a very special piece of art, because not all art does that. It was controversial, but in a really interesting way, which was just so fascinating to hear. In America, the ultimate sign of freedom is to be able to express through the use of the flag as a symbol. It’s one of the cornerstones of our democracy, so as an artist, I feel privileged to be able to do that.
CM: How did you initially decide to do a book on bison?
Audrey: After I did the Bound Bison, I realized that nobody had really done a full-color coffee table book about bison. And then Gibbs Smith, our publisher, came to me and said, “We really want to do something different … Do you have any ideas outside of the home category?” I asked, “What would you think about doing a bison book?” They were just as surprised as we were that there was not a full-color coffee table book about bison in the market. It still kind of blows my mind; I don’t even know how it’s possible. So, our editor came back and said, “How fast can you get this book out?” We signed the contract and literally the next week, the whole country went into lockdown.
CM: The close relationship between Native Americans and bison is central to the book, can you tell me a bit about how you sought out those perspectives, voices, and stories?
Chase: The bison are obviously so integral to the history of so many tribes, but also a number of tribes’ creation stories are centered on the bison. It would be highly inappropriate to do a whole book on the bison and not include native voices. Henry Real Bird’s name came up immediately as a possible contributor. We realized very early that it’s not our place to talk about this animal in this way, without involving some native voices.
Audrey: Henry was the first person who came to mind. He was the poet laureate of Montana, and I just had this gut instinct that it needed to be Henry.
CM: Are there any lessons we can take away from bison?
Chase: They’re so inspiring in that they’re strong, they’re powerful, they’re resilient, and they’re stronger together. When cows calve, the whole herd works to protect the mothers in labor and the babies that are born, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Audrey: The lesson is that the stronger of us should work to protect the most vulnerable of us. There are so many lessons on sticking together for the betterment of everybody.
CM: What was it like working on this book during the pandemic?
Audrey: It’s probably the only book I could have done during a pandemic. I think what I really appreciate about it was the ability to connect with nature and with this incredible animal in these amazing places, because I was literally working by myself isolated in a field, either camping or staying in a little log cabin on the Diamond 4D Ranch. I appreciated the mental health aspect of being able to step outside of isolation and be connected to the environment, connected to nature, and be observing these magnificent animals and reflecting on their story. It’s pretty intense when you think that we almost annihilated the entire species. It’s not a proud moment in history, the devastation of that—and the devastation of the pandemic.
Chase: Ultimately, it’s a very hopeful story because of the comeback—bison went from just a handful remaining to about 500,000 today. There’s a ton of interest in this animal and they’re so closely tied to the plight of indigenous people, which is a hugely important story too. Many tribes are reclaiming their heritage with these herds and restoring the land while reconnecting with their history and also finding a way to feed their own people in hard times, which is especially helpful during a pandemic. Ultimately, I feel like it’s a story of hope.
Audrey: They’ve had a comeback and it’s such a powerful story. The bison legacy is something that we need to recognize and celebrate. It’s important that we continue to preserve this species and continue to preserve the environment. This story really makes you reflect on the importance of the species to so many people and the heartbreak we’re still experiencing generations later—that we nearly exterminated not only the bison species, but also native American peoples and their culture in our land. Not that a book can be the answer to anything, but making the book really presented an opportunity to reflect on that heartbreak and celebrate this incredible animal that we’re so fortunate to still have with us.