On Assignment

Valentine’s Day with Author James Lee Burke

Last year, I received a message from Agence RÉA in Paris, France, asking me if I’d be interested in an assignment photographing James Lee Burke and his Montana ranch for the French magazine, Le Point. Oh my, twist my arm, YES!

So off I went on a foggy, damp Montana Valentine’s Day to hang out with Jim.

I walked up to the door of his ranch, and he and his wife, Pearl, greeted me warmly with smiles and offers of tea. We sat down at his kitchen nook and spoke for a bit as we munched on chocolate-covered almonds. It didn’t take long for Jim to launch into some great tales, one of which was about the man who photographed the portraits at Charlie B’s bar in downtown Missoula. It’s no surprise that Jim is as wonderful a storyteller in person as he is on the page. He’s animated, gesturing with his arms and raising and lowering his voice at perfect moments.

Jim invited me into his office where he began pulling a few of his favorite things off his shelves and desk to tell me a little bit more about them. Civil War-era bullets rolled around in his palms, his hands traced the frame of a portrait of his great-grandfather, and then, picking up what appeared to be a skull, Jim began to chuckle a little. “This,” he said, with a mischievous smile, “is the remains of a New York critic who gave one of my books a bad review.” We both exploded in laughter. “Actually,” he admitted, “it’s a cast of Lucy, one of the first hominids.”

We decided to head outside to the barn to feed his horses. As Jim was lacing up his boots and putting on his hat, I thanked him for being so gracious to do this shoot since he was in the middle of a pretty terrible cold and cough.

“Are you kidding me?” he said. “It’s a pleasure. And you know,” he looked at me intently as he opened the door, “you’re a real pro.”

My eyebrows leapt up my forehead and my smile about split my face in half. “Oh, thank you! Wow, thank you!”

“I’ve been photographed a lot,” he said, “and I know a true professional when I meet one. You’re the real deal.”

We headed out the door, my smile going on for miles. Jim pointed out the best way down the steep and icy slope. His horses were so excited to see him, and though I haven’t spent a whole lot of time around horses, I’ve never met such sweet beasts. They honestly reminded me of super-sized golden retriever puppies.

They nuzzled into Jim, leaning their furry faces into his chest and arms, and clearly soaked up the kisses he had to give them. As he popped into the barn to retrieve some alfalfa treats, the three horses would poke their heads in, sometimes sneaking into the barn itself, like overeager little toddlers.

“Oh, look at you.” Jim said. “Look at you taking liberties because Miss Kristine is here. You know you’re not allowed in here. Now you get back out there where you’re supposed to be.” He’d gently nudge them out the door again and turn his back. A few minutes later, one hoof would poke its way onto the concrete pad, and Jim would kindly push the sweet offender back outside again.

After the three horses had been fed, we walked down the road a way to go see Two Bit, the other horse in the other pasture. Two Bit is apparently a bit of a troublemaker with the three other horses, so he needs to be separated from them. Jim warned me to move slowly around Two Bit—not because he is aggressive but because he’s slightly unpredictable.

“He’s a little…spastic,” he explained. “He won’t even go into the barn because he gets so worked up seeing his reflection in the windows.”

We passed through the gate and Two Bit immediately walked up to me and reached out his nose to say hello and get a good sniff. I put my hands out to him and he inhaled. “He NEVER does that,” Jim said. “Never ever! He must really know a good’un when he meets one.”

I grinned again—compliments from Jim AND his horses. I was on top of the world.

After we fed Two Bit, we walked back to the main house where the French journalist, Julie, had shown up to interview Jim. She and I chatted for a bit. (I asked her what she thought of Montana. Her giggled, wonderfully French-accented response: “Is this Switzerland?!”) We continued our conversation as Jim went into the next room to fetch something before I headed out for the afternoon. I tried to convince Julie that should she ever need a photographer in France, I’d be more than happy to hop on a plane “because I’m sure there’s not a single photographer in France, right?” She grinned, “Nooooo, noooo. Of course not! No photographers at all!”

Jim returned with a hard copy of his newest book, House of the Rising Sun, and began to write an inscription. He handed me the book, and I thanked him profusely for such a pleasant, happy afternoon, and for his complete and utter generosity.

“Thank YOU!” he said. “Come back any time you want. We’d love to have you visit.”

I left his ranch feeling so thankful for this job, but more importantly, thankful for good souls like his in this world.

Upon returning home from the shoot, I opened the cover to his book and turned to the inscription he had written in dark blue ink:

To Kristine,

With thanks for your gracious manner and wonderful sense of humor—

All the best,

James Lee Burke

What a perfect Valentine’s Day. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.