A coffee chat several years back with cowboy poet and Eastern Montana rancher Wally McRae sealed Alexis Bonogofsky’s mission.
Bonogofsky grew up south of Billings along the banks of the Yellowstone River, appreciating sandstone bluffs, sagebrush flats, yucca blossoms and Montana’s open sky.
The thing is, and we’ve all heard this before, that folks in other parts of the state and around the West don’t always appreciate the plains of Eastern Montana. Bonogofsky wants people to see that the beauty here is worth protecting.
“I was working with the National Wildlife Federation on energy issues, and I couldn’t get people interested in caring about this part of the state,” Bonogofsky said.
She bought her first professional camera in 2013 and started chronicling the people and places in Eastern Montana. More than two dozen of those photos are on display through the end of December at the Downtown Billings Alliance, 2815 Second Ave. N.
“Wally McRae always said, ‘We’ve got to make people care.’ I wanted people to see Eastern Montana like I see it. People in Western Montana say it’s sparse and desolate and that the only thing that is beautiful are the mountains."
This is the second year that Bonogofsky has shown her photographs during the December ArtWalk. Her East of Billings calendars were big hits last week at ArtWalk and she continues selling them on her website, eastofbillings.com or at This House of Books, where they are available for $15 each.
Bonogofsky earned a master's degree in international development at the University of Denver, then worked for the National Wildlife Federation for 11 years as the tribal lands partnerships manager.
After receiving a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation in 2014, she turned to freelance writing and photography. She still manages the family goat and sheep ranch along the Yellowstone River and teaches yoga. She also founded Artemis Sportswomen earlier this year to help introduce women to hunting. Last weekend Bonogofsky hosted an elk butchering workshop on her ranch.
"We want to help people gain the skills they need to hunt and fish. Hunting isn't all about the horns," she said.
With no formal training in photography, Bonogofsky taught herself by finding an interesting spot, setting up the tripod experimenting with the settings on her camera.
One of Bonogofsky’s favorite photos in the exhibit is a black and white print showing two horses, one of them hobbled but hopping forward to find a new patch of grass to eat. Part of the appeal to Bonogofsky’s photos is the storytelling behind them. Several photos were taken on Eastern Montana ranches, including the Rocker 6.
"If you take your time and look, that's where life is happening — where the prairie meets the mountains," she said.
One photo shows a woman roping a calf, a rare sight for some folks who are more used to male ropers. Bonogofsky is planning to shoot a series of photos featuring women ranchers, like herself.
Another shot is of two young cowboys, the littlest one with a cowboy hat so big on him he has to peak out under the brim. The two cowboys are part of the Amish colony on the Tongue River near Ashland. Area cattle ranchers value the Amish people and often hire them because they are hard workers and excellent horsemen.
Another photo shows a group of cowboys laughing during branding. Bonogofsky said she wished she had been close enough to hear what was so funny.
“To make good pictures, you have to understand what you are seeing,” Bonogofsky said. “These aren’t just photos, there are the stories behind them. My goal is to help people see and understand.”
The show and sale are a group effort. Bonogofsky’s friend, Bart Bilden, crafted frames out of deer antlers, old horseshoes, and a weathered fence post. Her mom and sister helped sell calendars and many of her cowboy subjects came in to see the show. Clint McRae, Wally’s son, helped hang the photographs.
Most photos are unframed to keep the price down. You can buy a photo for as little as $40 or a calendar for $15, plus shipping costs.
“This isn’t all about making money. I want people to be able to buy my work.”