Transparent in the Backlight

Transparent in the Backlight

Transparent in the Backlight is a collaboration between the poems of Shann Ray and the panoramic photography of internationally renowned photographer Craig W. Hergert. Ray first encountered the art of Hergert when Ray’s wife gave him a gift collection of Hergert’s work. Since that time, over the span of 15 years, Ray’s life as a poet, short story writer, and novelist has often been accompanied by Craig’s images of Montana. In referring to Hergert’s work, Ray said: “He is an artist of uncommon acumen, his eye attuned to visions of great magnitude alongside the specific substrata of both the human and the wild, flora, fauna, land and sky, the face of a wildflower or the neck of a swan, captured and given to those of us graced to witness Craig Hergert’s craft. In experiencing his work, so often open on my writing desk, viewing panoramas like Three Dollar Bridge, Ranch Road, Cascade, and Arrow Creek Bench Sunset, I feel at peace as a writer, infused with gravity, and grateful. Craig’s landscapes, towns, wildlife, people, cattle, horses, and specifically the way he uses light, have seen me through many nights in my own struggle to find the words to express the human crucible.”

With over 400 pages of physical beauty and a full 24-inch by 12-inch layout, this collection of photographs of Montana from acclaimed photographer Craig W. Hergert, with poetry and short stories by award winning writer Shann Ray is a legacy book for those who hold the wilderness with reverence and awe.


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Renowned landscape photographer Craig W. Hergert and award-winning American poet and novelist Shann Ray have released their anticipated collaboration, Montana Panoramic: Transparent in the Backlight. The sweeping new collection marries a 15-year retrospective of Hergert’s never-before-seen panoramas with Ray’s poetry and prose, honoring the full complexity of the Montana landscape — which is, in turn, a profound echo of the American landscape — fraught with difficulty, troubled by questions of atonement, and sanctified by the nascent wisdom in making things right. The book’s literary and visual vignettes depict the region’s distinctive people and places through a lens intent on light: its beauty and slant across epic vistas, its properties in the human face, its relationship to the powerful starlit skies of Montana at night.

Craig Hergert is a Montana-based freelance photographer whose work appears in galleries and businesses throughout the country and in private collections internationally. His highly acclaimed previous collections — Montana: Skiing the Last Best Place, with foreword by Warren Miller, and Montana Panoramic Volume 1: 1997-2007 — are in their second and third printings, respectively.

Shann Ray’s deeply engaging work examines humanity’s relationship with violence, love, and forgiveness. Born and raised in Montana, Ray is the winner of an American Book Award, among numerous other accolades, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and the author of a libretto and 15 books, including Atomic Theory 7American Masculine, and The Souls of Others. His esteemed work has been widely featured in respected periodicals and publications worldwide.

– Big Sky Journal

When most of us have given ourselves over to sleep, Shann Ray is giving himself over to the process of writing. More often than not, Ray writes in pencil on a piece of plain white paper, typically between 10 pm and 1 am, knowing he can work through the darkness into the dawn as needs demand.

“There’s an ancient idea that ‘God dwells in the thick darkness,'” says Ray, who teaches leadership and forgiveness studies at Gonzaga University. “An elegant notion,” he says, his eyes flashing, a smile resting on the right side of his mouth.

“All ancient traditions honor light. Of course, without light none of us would be here,” adds Ray, whose work often explores both the dichotomy of good and evil and the permeable membrane between these inextricable forces.

His process is nonlinear, Ray says. His work includes poetry like Atomic Theory 7, prose like the award-winning American Copper, and scholarly works. The form might be secondary to the content that moves him, including his beloved former home of Montana.

“I think more of music and rhythms: water, land and sky,” Ray says. 

Ray recently completed two works. The Souls of Others is a collection of essays, poems and other writings, some of which have appeared in such publications as LitHub, High Desert Journal, and the Inlander. Montana Panoramic: Transparent in the Backlight is a collaboration with Bozeman-based photographer Craig Hergert that focuses Ray’s attention to light, both its physical manifestation of epic vistas and its metaphoric potential.

Transparent in the Backlight is meant to honor the full complexity of the Montana landscape, which is a real echo of the American landscape,” Ray says, adding that the subject is “fraught with questions and difficulty, the concepts of making things right, the concepts of atonement… life and relationships, forgiveness… love.”

The 402-page hardcover book begins the visual journey near the Bozeman-area Missouri River headwaters prominent in so many historical narratives, and one of many places Ray lived in his youth. It follows the Yellowstone River east, moving counterclockwise through the state.

Along the way, Ray’s words offer a sense of the people who might inhabit these lands.

“If a person reads the poems that run through this whole book, it reads like the story of a human family humbly in the natural world,” Ray says. The book is both poetic and oblique, and although not a novel, it definitely has a beginning, middle and end, Ray says.

“I hope it takes people down into the depth of our ability to love and our ability to fracture and our ability to come back to one another.”

The book concludes with a quick visual trip down Montana’s western flank to Dillon, site of the infamous Big Hole Massacre. For most of the book, Hergert already had images, but after reading Ray’s essay on the Big Hole, Hergert knew he needed to re-shoot something to match the emotion of Ray’s writing.

Ray’s “In the Heart of the Mountains” recounts the atrocities that befell the Nez Perce at the Big Hole, where U.S. troops slaughtered as many as 90 tribal members, mostly women and children. Chief Joseph escaped, however, and in recent times, a female member of his tribal lineage, Deer Park resident Robbie Paul, together with her father, has attended the Nez Perce reconciliation ceremony at the site of the massacre. Today, the Nez Perce invite descendants of the military who committed the atrocity to walk with the descendants of those who were massacred at the Big Hole. They carry lanterns together through the darkness and at sunrise there is a healing and forgiveness ceremony at the site.

A person can pick up the book and look at great pictures, Ray says, “but if they want to read through it, they’ll get a not only a bear attack, and fishing, they’ll receive an initial understanding of genocidal history and the nature of forgiveness inside Montana and America, which is a gift.”

– Carrie Scozzaro, The Pacific Northwest Inlander