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Livin' her dream

Kate Thurston sits atop a horse during a trip to make photos in the American West.

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

Ask Kate Thurston how she’s doing and, likely as not, this 30-year old woman will say, “Livin’ the dream.” She means it.

Thurston quit the best paying job she’d ever had, packed her cameras and cowboy boots and drove her truck to South Dakota last spring. She stayed several days, came home for for a week and drove off to Colorado.

There she stayed away for a month, taking thousands of photos on her dream trip to the American West.

She’ll be showing some of the results this month. Called “Framing the West,” her exhibit of 30 photos will be hanging all month in the Whitewater Valley Arts Association gallery at 402 Central Ave. An opening reception for her is 6-8 p.m. Friday. 

Thurston visited people in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota, soaking in their rugged way of life. 

“Around here,” Thurston says, speaking of Connersville, “we don’t have that kind of lifestyle. When we think of the West, people think of cowboys. It’s still out there. The people I met, this is their lifestyle.”

Her photos show a lifestyle most people here experience only online or in the movies. It’s what Thurston wanted to experience for herself.

These photos show the cowboys who work the cattle ranches where not much has changed since the days of the old West. The photos include men and women branding cattle, horses kicking up dust, ropes and lariats, saddles, and people tired after a long day. 

“I admire people who work really hard,” she said. “These people get up before the sun comes up and they’re out there all day long, working hard.”

Thurston didn’t just watch and take pictures. She made friends.

There’s a man cooking, feeding his “five little guys” out in the rough. They’d been branding cattle “and they let me in on it. I held a calf down.” The man told her, “Now that you’ve been in on one of our brandings, you have to come back.”

She means for her photos to capture the smells, the sounds, the experience so people who view them can share it.

“I look for the moment,” she said. “When I’m shooting cattle branding, I look for the smoke coming up, I’m there hearing the noise, smelling the smoke, and with all of the people involved in getting that done.” 

Thurston, who grew up in Connersville as Katy Lunsford, is a reporter at the Connersville News-Examiner. She has worked in a variety of jobs but photography is her passion. And traveling.

She remembers being a kid and admiring photos in National Geographic magazine, thinking she’d like to travel and take that kind of photo.

A trip to the Smoky Mountains with her family cemented her love for the camera when she was about 13. Her father had a nice film camera and let her use it. When the pictures came back, “Dad handed me the camera and said, ‘You need this, not me.’”

She credits a high school teacher and old boss, Jeff Gabbard, for helping her learn a lot more about making pictures. She also attended a college-level photo school.

But when she saw the work of Chris Dickinson, a photographer who specializes in Western lifestyle photos, she decided to attend a 2017 workshop of his in Salt Lake City.

“I wanted to be able to do the kind of images he does,” she said. “I can totally look at one of his images and be there. I want others to be there with mine.” 

At the newspaper, Thurston writes a personal column about once a month. She often tries to encourage people to experience life to the fullest.

“I want people to know you can go out and do things like this,” Thurston said. “I’m just this restless person. It’s almost a curse. I always want more.”

So earlier this year, she got it in her head that she needed to take time off and travel to the West. To do that, she had to quit her job. She has nothing holding her back and has no children.

“I remember telling my family, ‘I think I’m just going to go out West.’ They were very supportive; they are proud that I’m not afraid to do something like this,” she said. “I packed up my gear, my photo stuff, hiking boots, my cowboy boots.”

Another Dickinson workshop led her to South Dakota this year, where Thurston made some special memories with Zach Ducheneaux and Jenn Zeller of DX Ranch. “It was very humbling to me, for them to open up their home to a girl from Indiana.”

Looking on social media for people offering rentals, she ended up in Boulder, Colorado, staying with people she hadn’t met before. A friend had a friend who owns a ranch and told Thurston to contact her. She did, and got an invitation. Other days, she would get up, talk with people about what she was trying to do, and they’d tell her about places and people to visit.

“A bunch of doors opened up for me,” Thurston said. “It worked. I met the right people.”

Even after returning to Connersville, the connections have continued working for her. Faced with preparing for a show of her Western work, Thurston wanted rustic frames for her photos of rugged people. Danny Bunzendahl and Jim Willis stepped up, using barn wood and tree limbs for 30 unique frames.

Thurston says it’s all about the experiences and the friendships.

“One morning when we were bringing in cattle to be doctored, we had to be up at 4 and didn’t get to bed till 2, and it was raining. Then in just one moment, it stopped raining and the lighting was perfect, and I thought, ‘Yeah, you had to be up early but the whole time I remembered that I was so glad I did this.’”

Show opens Friday

A show of 30 photographs called “Framing the West” opens with a public reception from 6-8 p.m. Friday at the Whitewater Valley Arts Association gallery, 402 Central Ave. It will be displayed through the first week in December.

The exhibit is the work of Kate Thurston, a reporter at the Connersville News-Examiner. She took the photos on trips to the American West, focusing on the people living and working on cattle ranches.