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 a span of more than two decades, 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.”

Transparent in the Backlight is an International Book Award Winner that speaks to the beauty of the earth as body, the body as given, and honors an ecological theology grounded in hope.  

International Book Awards - Honoring Excellence in Independent & Mainstream PublishingWith over 400 pages of physically stunning images 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 

Have you ever done an early evening walk along Swords Park above Billings and struggled to take in, let alone describe, the thrilling views of the Big Horns, the Pryors, the Beartooth range and the Bull Mountains? The wonder and joy of our precious Montana landscape are brought to vivid life in Montana Panoramic: Transparent in the Backlight by photographer Craig W. Hergert, with poetry and stories by Shann Ray. Montana Panoramic is a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards category of Art & Photography.

Hergert is a Bozeman-based freelance photographer whose work has won several international photography awards and he was the recipient of the Montana’s Treasured Artist award from the Secretary of State in 2010. Ray, a scholar of leadership and forgiveness studies, is an American Book Award winner whose poetry and prose are rooted in his childhood spent, in part, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

Montana Panoramic is a large (12-inch x 8½-inch) and weighty book that invites the reader to sit at a desk and slowly leaf through the gorgeous two-page photo spreads of our Treasure State. The contents are organized by region, and it is an utter pleasure to wander with such a discerning eye from Ekalaka to Libby, and Plentywood to Dillon. Hergert is a master at encompassing a view as grand as the three rivers that meet to form the Missouri, the Going to the Sun Highway, or the Medicine Ridge in Big Horn Canyon. Hergert achieves even further depth by focusing on local buildings, families, animals, monuments, and businesses that define our communities. He lets differing versions of history speak for themselves through images of conflict and environmental destruction. And always there is his unique ability to capture light on the landscape.

Ray’s poetry and prose are throughout the book, bringing added grace and meaning to the photographs. Of “The Big Snowy Foothills – Shawmut” he writes: “What were we below all that grandeur? She loved how the sky was the face of one who’d loved you since before you were born. Capable of stillness and fire and beauty beyond imagining.” Of “Grain Fortresses – Stanford,” Ray writes: “Our towns put up small fortresses of steel as if to guard against desolation. We grew quick in fresh soil. On golden stalks a million-fold. We went through heartache, ceremony, harvest, loss. We fed our families and fed the nations.”

In these days of remarkable environmental challenge and technological change, we can be grateful for this wonderful contemplative collaboration between such a gifted photographer and eloquent writer.

– Reviewed for The High Plains Book Awards by Tim Sweeney, retired LGBTQ and HIV advocate and activist


The Photographer Craig Hergert, A Montana’s Treasured Artist Award recipient, and American Book Award winner Shann Ray have paired up to produce a thing of beauty. Expansive images reveal an extraordinary perspective captured through Hergert’s lens, including many places where Ray lived in his youth on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Southeast Montana. About 200 stunning panoramic landscape photos from around the state drape across the pages.

The photographs pair naturally with Ray’s poems and prose. His writing about land and home feels timeless, a sensation equally encapsulated in Hergert’s images. Montana is a “home of soul” as Ray calls it. “Here, under skies clear and brooding, along miles of backroad, walking the fringe of forests, we are together in our varied towns, over land and along riverbeds, up switchbacks, or among wetlands, stippled, gritty, graceful, unnerving, welcoming.” Both the photos and the poems render the natural world as something marvelous and unmatchable, something to be loved and cared for. Hergert admits he had to reshoot several places to capture the heart of Ray’s words.  

As Ray states, the book “definitely has a beginning, middle and end.” But open it to a random page and the message is clear: the natural world is something we should marvel at, something we should learn from, something as familiar as our family. Ray, a scholar and professor of leadership and forgiveness studies, provides a soulful look into the heartbreak and healing across Montana. And Ray’s passage about a bear encounter might send shivers up your spine.  

This will make an amazing addition to any collection of coffee-table books, especially for anyone unable to travel to every gorgeous vista. 

– Montana Quarterly

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but with Craig Hergert’s collection of photos in Montana Panoramic: Transparent in the Backlight (Great Wide Open Publishing, $85) only a few are necessary—“stunning,” “encompassing,” and “alive” are some that come to mind. These photos, combined with Shann Ray’s elegant narrative expression, show Montana in a way that we can all relate to, as if we are really there. Together, Craig and Shann take you across the Big Sky state, corner to corner, telling the story of Montana using brilliant photography and thought-provoking stories and poems. Taste the dust from the dirt roads in the Highwood Mountains, feel the warm steam of the Grand Prismatic in Yellowstone, smell the sun-baked wheat growing in Plentywood, and hear the crowd roar as a cowboy holds tight to a bucking bronc. The shots of Bozeman and familiar mountain ranges evoke feelings of homeyness, while new vantages summon wonder and an inspiration to discover what the reader has not yet seen. This book is a great way to take the epic expanses of Montana home, right to your living room, for you to relive with the turn of a page.

– Outside Bozeman

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 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