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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison.

Women Of The West: An Alpha Female + Project Comes To Life

The allure of the American West captivated me from a young age. Driving between one-stoplight towns in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming on family vacations, I saw dramatic landscapes of flat, empty space stretched between jagged, impassable peaks, and rugged individuals defined by tenacity, grit, and determination. It was obvious that you couldn’t just want to live here, you had to work for it. The wide, open plains and jagged peaks of the Rockies promised me the space I needed to forge my own path in life. It seemed like it wouldn’t much matter if what I did was “different,” because nobody was paying attention to me anyway. Everyone else was too busy doing their own thing.

In a few whirlwind weeks, Alpha Female Plus grant winner Julie Ellison shot an ambitious project with an inspiring group of women across the western US. See how you can apply https://alphauniverse.com/alpha-female/ 

Women Of The West

Like much of the mountain West, winters in Teton Valley, Idaho, are long and snowy, springs are muddy, falls are fleeting, and summers are sweet but oh-so-short. The unforgiving seasons and harsh terrain breed self-reliance and individualism, but there’s also a pronounced sense of community. People have vastly different backgrounds and views, but ultimately, we all call this special place home. For my Women of the West project, I sought to tell the stories of other women who were drawn to this spot, women who dismissed the easy road and chose instead to pave their own way.

Building Visual Context By Thriving In The Chaos

No matter what subject I’m shooting, the ingredients I look for in a photograph are light, context, and action. When I see one or two or ideally all three come together at once, I try to find an aesthetic composition that will let those components shine. I move around a lot when I shoot, going low, going high, standing on chairs, stepping through doors, waiting for the subject to get far away from me on a ridgeline, trying to run ahead and get in front, sticking a camera as close to the person as possible without getting in their way, and generally trying every angle I can think of. Once I’m on location, I understand which elements are important to the story and which backgrounds might make the most beautiful shots.

My approach to shooting and composition choices for each woman was similar, where I tried to use layers of objects and other people to build context around the action of the subject. I love the wide shots where you can see each person’s studio or workspace—the chaos and busyness of those scenes feels authentic. Many of the participants apologized for “the mess,” but I was thrilled when I walked into the ceramicist’s studio and saw splatters from wet clay covering the walls and dripping toward the floor, or arrived at the yurt building site and saw it littered with piles of leftover wood. My joke is that I thrive in the chaos, and I enjoy the challenge of making frames that show the detail without being distracting. I ended up with these interesting juxtapositions where some of the images are structured the same, but the actual subject, action, and backgrounds are different. For example, the wide shot of Mary surrounded by tools and materials in her glassblowing studio pairs well with a wide shot of Sheena playing the upright bass surrounded by instruments in the music studio. For me the challenge of being a documentary photographer is that there’s a constant give and take between making beautiful images and portraying the situation as it actually happens.

My Go To Camera & Lenses For Day Or Night, Indoors Or Outside

My technical approach for each of the subjects was quite similar; I have a go-to camera kit that I carry for every shoot: Sony Alpha α7 III, Sony G-Master 70-200 f/2.8, Sony 24-70 f/4 and Zeiss Batis 18mm f/2.8. Because my shoots take place in a variety of locations and any time of day, both inside and outside, from the early morning sunrises to inky darkness in the middle of the night, I need to be prepared for anything. Lighting and weather conditions are constantly changing, as well as access to different vantage points. Sometimes in the mountains or with certain subjects, you only have a small radius of shooting positions to choose from. I’m always dialing the shutter speed and aperture up and down based on available light and what I’m trying to achieve, whether I want to freeze action, create a slight blur, shoot into the sun, or show the moodiness of a scene.

For the outdoor shoots, I often needed to carry my kit on my back because I was hiking through rugged terrain all day, so I need to cover all my bases but also keep everything lightweight and compact. Combine the camera gear with layers, water, food, and other equipment needed for the day, and the weight adds up fast. I go into each shoot having an idea of what it might look like and what might happen, but I never really know. For me that’s part of the fun. One pleasant surprise about the timing of my project was capturing the transition from fall to winter. The first few shoots I went on, the magic of autumn’s light was enchanting, and I couldn’t stop shooting the golden prairie grasses, the changing leaves, and the warm glow that seemed to embrace everything. Right when I was starting to get tired of shooting the same colors, it snowed in the valley and blanketed everything with a layer of white. Suddenly the colors were crisp with a blueish hue, offering a drastic change and welcome contrast.

Finding The Women In The Project

When it came to finding subjects, I was looking for local women of any age and background. The only requirements were that they had a job or hobby that was interesting, bold, and aesthetic. I asked friends and other people in the area, posted on Facebook, and searched old news stories. It’s a small community, so a few of the first subjects I shot recommended other subjects and pointed me in different directions. It was amazing how one person would lead me to another and another. The subjects ranged from artisans like a ceramicist and a leather worker to hunters and anglers to chefs and food activists. The women were so kind and generous, inviting me to come along with them on adventures and hang out in their studios. Without them, this project would not have been possible, so I want to thank them for letting me follow them around with a camera. Below I outlined a bit about each woman’s story and our time together. (Editor’s Note: In this article we’re spotlighting just some of the women Julie Ellis photographed for her Alpha Female + grant-winning Women Of The West project. We will showcase more from the project over the coming weeks here at AlphaUniverse.com.)

Francesca Weikert – Chef, Community Builder, and Slow Food Educator

Meeting Franny was the epitome of small-town syndrome. Originally one of our mutual friends referred her to me about borrowing my campervan for a trip she was taking. When we started talking and she mentioned what she did—catering and hosting farm-to-table events with her mobile wood-fired pizza oven in a trailer—I knew I had to shoot her unique setup. Then when we met up, not only did we have many other close friends in common, she had actually been to my property a few days earlier to purchase plants from Raylene, who is my neighbor and also a part of this project. That’s Teton Valley for you! Franny and her partner Blaine started In Season Pizza, a sourdough bread and pizza business that offers “earth-centered and locally sourced dining experiences to weddings, elopements, and intimate gatherings in the Tetons.” I joined them for a 5-course dinner and movie night hosted in a remodeled barn, crafting delicious pizzas and screening Gather and Kiss the Ground, a film about soil and Indigenous food sovereignty. It was snowing like crazy, which created a fun shooting challenge hustling between shooting the pizza trailer outside and the food prep inside.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.  

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

Sloane Siegel – Metalsmith

Like many artists, Sloane must find a balance between making functional work that pays the bills and artistic work that satisfies her creative spirit. She responded to a post I put on Facebook looking for subjects and was very enthusiastic to support another artist. “I’m super excited for you as another woman embarking on a badass art journey!” she wrote in her first email. She was working on a custom tower for solar panels that would be installed on a friend’s tiny house in Tetonia. She cut angle iron, welded brackets together, and used a plasma cutter while keeping measurements and adjusting the overall design on the fly—expert-level multitasking to say the least.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7R III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7R III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7R III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7R III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7R III.

Sheena Dhamsania – Musician and Music Teacher

The first time I spoke to Sheena on the phone, I felt like I had just chugged a cup of coffee. She is so vivacious and has so much energy, which is absolutely necessary for her roles as both an elementary school music teacher and a musician in multiple outlaw country bands. Unfortunately there were no opportunities to photograph her at a live show due to Covid, but I was able to shoot her teaching at school and playing music at a friend’s house. Watching her wrangle a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds and get them excited about music was possibly more impressive than any stage performance. There were moments she was playing guitar and singing, and without stopping, she would seamlessly tell a student to quit fiddling with something and pay attention—she didn’t skip a beat or lose the rhythm, like it was part of the song. The next shoot with her was quite the contrast: just her and a friend jamming out in a house nestled in the mountains. She played upright bass and guitar and sang, and the quiet, intimate setting made for a dreamy experience.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III.

Raylene McCalman – Ethnobotanist

Raylene is my neighbor, and she’s lived throughout the West and done many different things. I knew she would be an interesting subject when she made me aware that my dog might try to dig in the garden because there were bones from two of her old cats buried there that she was going to retrieve in the near future. Her expertise ranges from traditional Native American foods to archaeology to herbalist remedies, and right now she’s focusing on native plant restoration and “kitchen witching,” where she creates various tinctures, elixirs, and solutions using plants and natural ingredients.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. 

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. 

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. 

Maggie Heumann & Heather Munn - Anglers

Both avid sportswomen, Maggie and Heather let me tag along while they flyfished at some of their favorite spots in Teton Valley. Maggie manages a fly and outdoor shop, and Heather works as a flyfishing guide in the summer and ski patroller in the winter. Maggie helped found Artemis, an organization for sportswomen who have a vested interest in conservation. Working with the National Wildlife Federation, Artemis aims to teach future generations about protecting land, waters, and wildlife. Maggie’s background is in entomology, so while we were on the river, she would swipe into the air to grab bugs out of the air and turn rocks over on the banks, then base her fly choice on what bugs she found. Seeing the passion Maggie and Heather have for these things was so inspirational, and experiencing Teton Valley from the water gave me a new appreciation for this place I call home.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. Sony 70-200mm f/2.8 G Master lens.

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Photo by Alpha Female + grant winner Julie Ellison. Sony Alpha α7 III. 

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