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'I just want them to see the beauty'; photographer's images of the Ya Ha Tinda ranch showcased at Banff's Whyte Museum


Photographer Arto Djerdjerian shot more than 40,000 pictures over six years at the Ya Ha Tinda ranch, Canada's only federally-owned and operated working horse ranch. Now, 30 of the best images are on display at the Whyte Museum in Banff for its Winter 2024 Exhibition.

"My idea was to keep coming out over a number of years so the people there would get comfortable," said Djerdjerian. "I just didn't want to get tourist shots, I wanted to get into the gritty business of things."

Djerdjerian made sure he was at the ranch every season and would typically spend 14-hour days lugging three cameras around the 4,000 acre property.

"None of this is set up, none of it is directed, none of it is lit artificially," he said. "It's what is there, the only thing I control is where I place myself and when I released the shutter."

He says he earned the respect of the ranch hands because he was up at the crack of dawn with them to photograph their morning chores.

"Great bunch of guys, it was not only the photography part, but the people that I met there were just tremendous," he said. "Just a tremendous experience."

Djerdjerian says his photos capture what everyday life is like on the ranch and while the setting is beautiful on a sunny summer day, he preferred the inclement weather.

"When I was photographing, I didn't like when the weather was nice, when it was sunny and stuff," he said. "So the guys that were there knew that when the weather was turning I was going to be happy."

Rick Smith was the ranch manager when Djerdjerian was working on capturing images of it. He's retired now and says seeing the images takes him right back to the Ya Ha Tinda.

"The first time I looked at them, I saw it's all kind of overcast and just normal days," he said. "I thought that was going to be pretty portraits, you know, with blue skies and all of us in our nice shirts but as I got walking through it and looking at this, it was the life that we lead at the ranch."

Smith says the ranch was established in 1917 as a base for wardens to train and keep their horses. When he ran the ranch there were more than 120 horses, some heading out to patrol the back country in the mountain parks, while others were in training.

"Horses are still the safest and best way to get around the back country area," he said. "They're also aware of everything around them so they're a very early warning system for bears on the trail or even bison or elk or whatever."

Smith says wardens typically spend 10 days on the trail in incredible remote areas of the mountain parks with only their horses for company.

"When you're out there and you're by yourself in the cabin and have your supper and you're sitting out in the porch," he said. "You can hear your horse's bells ringing in the pasture and they'll come up and look for a scratch and acknowledgement because they like to have you there too, it's a safety feature for them."

Donna Livingstone is the CEO of the Whyte Museum and says Djerdjerian was able to capture the personality of many of the horses at the ranch.

"What I like about Arto's work is that he was a street photographer and it’s almost like these animals being presented with their personalities," she said. "He's got such a comfortable way of connecting with us so I think people are going to come away with this really warm feeling and understanding of a really remarkable operation."

Livingstone wishes Peter and Catherine Whyte could see the exhibition because they loved the landscape the ranch sits on.

"We're about mountain culture, we're about the quirky characters and the wonderful events that have happened in this area," she said. "We've got a wonderful photography collection already but when we can look at this, and sort of talk about the story and how it's continuing that's very important, that's an important legacy for us, but also from Peter and Catherine."

The exhibit runs until April 7, 2004. Learn more about it here: Top Stories

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