Photographer Steve Horan is confident his new book on Yellowstone is more than a “regional” book.
Horan has just published People of Yellowstone, 87 black-and-white portraits of people who make their living in and around Yellowstone National Park. Over several years, he photographed park employees ranging from past superintendents to the seasonal college kids who scoop the ice cream and wrangle the horses for the Roosevelt Lodge cookout.
“Yellowstone has appeal to people all over the country,” Horan said in a phone interview. “It’s the crown jewel of the National Park Service and the first national park.”
Horan got the idea to do a book about the people who work in and love Yellowstone from his brother, Jim, who first worked in Yellowstone as one of many seasonal college students back in 1984. Jim, who still resides in the area, worked at Roosevelt, and Steve would come out and visit.
“I got to know some characters,” Steve said, laughing.
Jim recommended some people to start with, and then those people suggested other subjects. Steve looked for subjects with name recognition and also researched books and websites about Yellowstone. It was sometimes a struggle because he himself was pretty much an unknown, and the subjects were usually at their busiest during Yellowstone’s short, intense summer season.
His first portrait was of Jim Cole, a former music teacher and now Gardiner, Montana resident, who spent his summers doing leatherwork based out of the Old Faithful Inn lobby. Cole was also known to step up to the Inn’s second floor balcony of an evening and perhaps accompany the pianist, belting out songs like “Oklahoma!” Jim could rattle the rafters with his voice.
Steve declined to identify a favorite photo, saying that every time he completed a new photo, that one was his favorite. Interviewing subjects before the shoot helped him identify the part of the person he most wanted to illustrate.
“The subjects had so many layers, we had to choose how to define them in one image,” he said.
Some subjects were more used to the limelight than others. Former Superintendent Bob Barbee, who passed away in 2016, oversaw Yellowstone from 1983 to 1994, which included the historic fire year of 1988.
Horan tracked Barbee down in retirement, where he had settled in Bozeman.
“I was so impressed by his friendliness and openheartedness,” Horan said. “And he was a stellar photographer.”
Barbee had even worked with iconic photographer Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park.
“That was amazing,” Horan said.
Horan knew he wanted to shoot Barbee with fire in the photo.
“I said ‘I’d really like to try to connect you to fire, how about by night?’ and he said ‘Sure,’” Horan explained.
Barbee didn’t have a firepit in his backyard, but Horan knew someone who did — Carl Sheehan, another subject in the book, who has sold his handcrafted Firehole Pottery in Yellowstone for several decades.
They all arranged to meet at Sheehan’s Bozeman-area home, where they sat around the fire, Barbee poking at it with a stick, talking about the ’88 fires.
“It was an intense time for him,” Horan said.
Horan worked with writer Ruth Crocker who wrote short profiles of everyone in the book. She said the challenge was keeping the profiles to 300 or so words, and to keep each piece unique and not fall into a formula.
Horan was photographing Crocker’s brother, Robert Whipple, who works as a seasonal interpretive ranger in the park when he was looking for a writer for his work.
Whipple told Horan about his sister the writer. Crocker and Horan then held some phone conversations and seemed compatible, she said.
What struck Crocker was the passion all the subjects had for the park.
“I don’t think I talked to a single person who didn’t love being out there,” she said. “Even if it was a job many of us might think of as tedious, like a housekeeper in a hotel, they loved their job and put their creativity into it. They are special people who end up there.”
Author and geography professor Judith Meyer, who worked some summers a Yellowstone tour guide, in her book, The Spirit of Yellowstone, writes, “Yellowstone selects her own.”
“I think I saw that quote somewhere,” Crocker said. “I totally agree. It’s a process of people embracing the place, but the place has its own organic identity that echoes back somehow.”
Horan and Crocker will be in Livingston, Montana, Friday, June 9, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for an opening reception of an exhibit featuring a selection of Horan’s photos. The exhibit will be on display at the Yellowstone Gateway Museum of Park County, a small county-funded museum located 50 miles from Yellowstone’s first entrance.
People of Yellowstone is available online at www.peopleofyellowstone.com, in regional bookstores and is also carried by the nonprofit Yellowstone Forever, which operates bookstores in the park.