A Creative, Ambitious Friend
With this month’s column, I wanted to take you inside the world of one of the more creative and ambitious people I know in this town or anywhere else. By way of years of association with Rocky Mountain School of Photography, my employer, I’ve been blessed to meet some outstanding people and photographers from all over the country (and the world) who have to come Missoula to study (or teach) their passion. I first came here myself to attend the school with dreams of changing a stale retail management career. I found out quickly that being my own boss as a photographer was not my interest (I’m a terrible boss, why would I want to work for me?!), however, but staying and living in Missoula was definitely my passion! RMSP has afforded me to do just that for which I am eternally grateful.
When I first attended the school in 2004, Athena Lonsdale was an assistant instructor for the then three-month Summer intensive program after she had attended the very same program in 2002. She worked there for many more years in this role before branching out into her own commercial photography career and business. Having been coworkers for a while, it wasn’t a stretch to remain friends and see each other quite a bit out & about with our overlapping circle of friends in this community we both love and call home. I’ve truly come to appreciate who she is, so this is all about her journey.
Athena’s story is quite a ride in itself. She shared quite a bit of with me for the purpose of this article that I’ll share with you. She arrived in town by way of her natural love of rivers, lakes and mountains. Prior to doing so, she was a nationally recognized competitive snowboarder and was actually one of the pioneers in this field in the 90s. Originally from Taos, NM, her life-long pursuits of surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding had her travelling all over the country where she met some very active and soon-to-be good friends who were from Missoula. They obviously lured her here because of all of the plentiful outdoor activities within close proximity. A knee injury quickly ended her budding career, so a change of place was her desire and she chose here.
Photography had always been an interest of hers, and after the injury, thought it would make an interesting and fun career. While working serving tables for a while, she mentioned these thoughts to friends who then informed her there was a nationally known photography school in town. She hadn’t known this until after she moved here, so she jumped on the opportunity to study at RMSP which has forever changed her working life.
She has always been a dog-lover and would bring her Australian Shepard pal, Cyrus, to school occasionally where he quickly become a favorite among her fellow students. One of them wanted to start a pet photography business and had the idea to have Cyrus “pretend” like he was taking a picture of him for the homepage of his website. A plan was put in place to set up a tripod with a camera and get Cyrus to put his paw on the shutter button to stage the picture, but Athena thought, why not have him take a real picture by putting film in the camera? And at that moment, a pho-dog-rapher was born! Athena then crafted a cheap film camera with a paddle of sorts that Cyrus could easily paw down on and activate the shutter. She would take him all over town, and whatever would catch his interest, she’d set up the tripod/camera pointing at what he was looking at. Cyrus quickly grew a large body of work of fellow canine friends, people, trees, squirrels, fire hydrants, etc. Eventually, this led to several art shows, a Blurb book, his own website (wetstinkydog.com)and more than one Missoulian articles. As you can imagine, it was brilliant and very well received by the dog-crazy citizenry of Missoula. Alas, this was not a permanent career choice, so Athena moved on to becoming an assistant photographer for a professional child portraiture business in town for several years where she learned a lot more about the business side of things. This eventually led to her being hired by a local commercial agency in town to help execute shoots for commercial clients (Dave McKay, Salt Studio). This is a much different arena than that of a traditional retail photography business such as portraiture, weddings, etc. This requires fulfilling clients’ ideas and working collaboratively as a team to achieve their goals. This required her to work both locally in the studio as well as out in the field, which eventually led to being hired by internationally known commercial photographer, Bruce Dorn. On a bigger scale, the shoots involved travel and being on location in remote places across the country helping her to build her own resume and portfolio.
One of her very first solo commercial jobs was with Salt Studio for the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI). This project required her to travel all over the state and professionally photograph so-called “role models” in various segments of society such as professional women and men, medical professionals, professional boxers and other athletes in their work environment. The campaign’s purpose was to highlight these role models for public schools, particularly on Native America reservations, to serve as inspiration for students and their future. This taught her a lot about how to coordinate and collaborate with a team using her own set of skills, creativity and ideas. All of this required a knack for working with people, making them feel comfortable and confident with her in front of and behind the camera, and developing a personality to make everything work as seamlessly as possible.
She was hired professionally as her own commercial photography business, Athena Photography, in 2008 by Partners Creative, specifically for a campaign highlighting and promoting Discover Ski Area in Philipsburg. And she is still working with them today for the very same purpose. All of her previous experience led her to launch out on her own and, as she likes to say, “My personality built my business.” Some of her other various commercial clients include Community Medical Center, Montana State Fund, VIM &VGR Compression Socks and Jackson Contractor Group to name a few. Now, it’s nearly impossible to be in Missoula any amount of time and not see her commercial work plastered on just about any printed or digital media you can imagine, from billboards to magazine covers to internet ads. Her current campaign is working with First Security Bank highlighting small business owners and professionals who have pivoted their business models to adapt to the COVID- 19 pandemic, such as Alpine Physical Therapy and Runners Edge.
And speaking of her personality, and since she has been one herself for most of her adult life, she truly appreciates “badass” women doing amazing things. When the Hellgate Roller Girls roller derby team was created, Athena was right there with them at the inception to be the team’s official photographer. She’d photograph the players at practice or at initial bouts to help promote this new concept to help grow a fan base. One of her all-time favorite personal projects was working collaboratively with individual Roller Girls and local artists to shoot and produce the 2015 Hellgate Roller Girls Calendar. Imagine goddess imagery, pin-up, animé, and abstract art and make-up all rolled up into one. It was quite the effort and success, and you if you’ve ever seen it, you’d know what a unique collector’s item it truly is. At one the HGR pop-up “bouts” at the River City Roots Fest events one year, led to her involvement with the MDA. At the time, staff member Colin Hickey recruited Athena to be the official commercial photographer for Roots Fest for the next six years or so. This is a great example of how personal work can often lead to commercial work in the future. She was also then hired commercially for the B.I.D.’s Business Relocation Guide that involved staging imagery of folks in various states of enjoyment shopping, dining living and working Downtown which is still used to this day.
Eighteen years later after first arriving to Missoula, Athena has made it both her home and home base for her livelihood. Her and her partner Kevin, (going on 18 years as well) have refurbished a home in the McCormick Park neighborhood and built her own custom photography studio on the property. Her quirky & fun personality and keen sense of all things creative, not to mention drive and ambition, have all allowed her to truly blaze her own unique path. Her appreciation for this place extends to its people & community, to the timeless architecture, and the ability of Missoula to maintain a connection to the past while incorporating a constant sense of reinvigoration. The way the Downtown area has grown economically and has still kept its local favorite flavor alive and thriving, really connects her to the community and environment at large. She’s an active member of the MDA where you may have seen her at various social functions.
So, the next time you see her out walking, or giving a ride, to her current Australian Cattle Dog pal Kadoogan in the sidecar of her Ural motorcycle around town, give her a wave and know that she’s a big part of the “Keep Missoula Weird” mantra that this town is so proud to own. Thanks, Athena, for being you … and for being here!
*Check out @athenaphotography on Instagram for some of her latest awesome imagery!