Words and photos by Melissa Guerra (November 2021)
I went to visit Robin McLean last winter for the wide-open spaces. The sky is open, the land is open, and it’s Nevada. No one tells you what to do. It’s a different kind of freedom you feel. Out there you become a minimalistic figure in a vast space.
I offered to take Robin’s author portrait for her debut novel, Pity the Beast, a western that has lots of horses in it. I hate to say she’s my “oldest friend” because that sounds terrible, but I’ve known her since college, and she has no trouble complaining to me about getting her portrait taken. I was a good person for the job.
The shoot did not get off to a promising start, and I was concerned we wouldn’t get what we needed. Nothing was working.
But then the wild horses appeared next to the ranch house. I was looking out the window and they just showed up. They sauntered into the ranch yard with the big, pretty Toquima Range in the background.
These wild horses live free in the High Plains desert. And around noon on this cold, cloudy day in March, they arrived just when we needed them. Immediately, the atmosphere changed. We threw on what we had and we ran out there. Robin was wearing snow pants (pictured above, far right).
I was terrified. I live on a ranch, so I’m not afraid of horses, but this is different. These are wild horses. Non-domesticated horses. But from behind my camera I could see Robin relaxing, and the horses were in their element too. The stallion nipped at the mares while the mares performed an equine choreography, moving around the stallion and trying to avoid the nips and kicks. Robin was in the middle of them. The whole time we did our own dance to make sure our livers didn’t get kicked.
Robin was watching the stallion, coordinating her movements with the herd. Neither of us wanted to get injured, but I really wanted to get the photo. In the span of about 12 minutes, I captured 130 images.
As someone who lives among domesticated horses in Texas, I really like how you can tell that these are wild horses, wild mustangs. You can tell from the shapes of their eyes and noses, the cuts and dents all over them from fights on the range.
I also like the impressionistic images the horses leave in the landscape behind Robin. They suggest what’s in Robin’s mind as if they are an extension of it.
Soon, it started to snow. You can see the big flakes.
Then the donkeys showed up.
And that hat. That hat suits Robin. I like the lines of it, all right angles. The wide, flat brim provides a level horizon. We got the author portrait from this image with a horse that they call Jake.
When the horses were done with their business, done drinking and hanging out, they headed back out to the desert.