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William Albert Allard: Pick a Bird

Stephanie Land

For the last several years, Robert Stubblefield has invited me to talk about The Write Question with students in one of the classes he teaches at the University of Montana. We talk about specific programs, which, if students have done their homework assignments, they've listened to. Then I answer questions about the process of reading, interviewing, and creating programs for radio and the Web. I also invite each of them to send me an essay they've written in response to a writer they read during the semester.

The following essay about William Albert Allard's work was written by Stephanie Land.


I met Bill Allard in a bar. He wore a tan vest, a beige cowboy hat, and a point-and-shoot camera that hung from his neck, resting on his chest. I shook his hand, and he smiled at me like a friend he hadn’t seen in five years. We were at the Second Wind Reading Series at The Badlander, and my instructor, Robert Stubblefield, introduced us. Bill was the visiting author for our class, Montana Writer’s Live, that week. I’d spent a couple of hours that afternoon lost in Bill’s website, in awe of his photographs, and asked him about the shots he took of cowboys on the open range in the 70s.  

“You know, I haven’t thought about those in a while,” he said.  “Maybe I’ll read some stories from that this week.”    

In class, he seemed to enjoy reading narratives he’d written decades ago, looking at the words with wonder, admitting he hadn’t read them in years. When he spoke of how he came to work for National Geographic fresh out of college, he said “There are very few things in your life that will substitute passion.”

One of Bill’s first assignments was to photograph the Hutterites in Montana. Through this assignment, Bill found people who would become as close as family at Surprise Creek, where the small community lived, and a love for the landscape. “I was falling in love with Montana,” he said. “Montana. It feels good just to say it.”

I saw Bill the following Sunday, again at the weekly reading. He let me bum a cigarette from him, and we talked about Missoula for a bit. “I’m flying out for Charlottesville on Thursday morning,” he said. “My wife can’t take the winters.”  I told him what a pleasure it was to meet him, and watched him snatch a few photos during the reading. “Oh, I’m never without a camera,” I remembered him saying.

When a student in class had asked him how he chooses a subject in the midst of crowds and events, he said “You have to pick a bird.”  He went on to explain, telling a story of a hunter who goes out and shoots at a flock. “But he doesn’t raise a feather,” he said.  “It’s because he didn’t pick a bird.”  

Stephanie Land lives with her daughter, Emilia, in Missoula, Montana, where she studies in the University’s Creative Writing Program. Her work has been featured online and in print through Mamalode Magazine.

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Chérie Newman is a former arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. She founded and previously hosted a weekly literary program, The Write Question, which continues to air on several public radio stations; it is also available online at and
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