If you were inspired by Leah Hennel‘s work in our April/May issue and would like to hear more from this amazing photographer, you’ll want to check out the 10-minute video interview (below) that our friends at The Camera Store did with her!
And if you haven’t read the Photo Life April/May issue yet, there’s still time to grab a copy on newsstands! Here’s an excerpt from Laurence Butet-Roch’s article on Leah, “Under the Big Sky: Turning to Prairie Ranchers for Inspiration and Solace.”
“I’d much rather go to the Prairies than the mountains,” readily avows the Calgary-based photographer Leah Hennel as we engage in some small talk before starting the interview. I’m telling her about my recent road trip West, and we both agree that the expression “big sky country” is not so much a cliché but a truism.
The uninterrupted horizon is one of the reasons why she prefers to spend her time in Eastern Alberta. It brings her healing when life throws her curveballs or peace after working on heartbreaking stories, like those she sometimes encountered while working as a staff photojournalist for the Calgary Herald between 2000 and early 2019. The open sky also conjures memories of her childhood, when she would spend summers at the family ranch in Stettler, about two hours northeast of the city. “I always wanted to be a rancher but couldn’t be one,” she explains, noting, among other reasons, that she’s allergic to horses. “I dream of being able to come home from a hard day’s work and ride across the grasslands without seeing anyone for miles. There’s something very romantic about it.” Instead, she’s dedicated herself to photographing that lifestyle—a way to “live vicariously through them” and to honour those whom she sees as “stewards of the land.”
Her fascination with photography began early, thanks to a subscription to National Geographic she shared with her brother. Among the images she remembers are those of William Albert Allard, who documented the American West with the sensitivity of a painter. Think of the portrait of cowboy Brian Morris, his weathered cheekbones catching the light and his penetrating gaze piercing the camera, or the picture of a lone rider galloping his mount through a field in Texas, the blue, cloudless sky filling most of the frame. Though Hennel initially considered being a vet, her math grades weren’t high enough. So, when the time came to do a work placement in Grade 11, she turned to photography and landed an internship at the Calgary Sun. There she met Mike Drew, who also cherished scenes from the Prairies and quickly became her mentor, encouraging her to combine working for a newspaper with pursuing personal projects, such as an exploration of the Western culture she admires so much.