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Southwest Spotlight: Returning to his roots

Press Photo by Bryan Horwath Photographer, videographer and documentary filmmaker Ken Howie talks Friday about his journey as a professional and his personal life, which both helped bring him back to his western North Dakota roots. 1 / 2
Courtesy Photo Ken Howie shows his son, Cole, how to do audio post production in Pro Tools in this undated photo.2 / 2

In real estate, location is everything and in life, some will argue, timing is everything.

For Ken Howie, however, lighting is everything.

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A nationally renowned commercial photographer and videographer, Howie moved back to his old western North Dakota stomping grounds last year and he’s been busy ever since, helping to capture the culture, history and way of life of an area that, he said, is unique to most of the rest of the country.

“So many places in the country, everything has been so diluted,” Howie said. “It’s really down to the point where individual cultures of the places where people came from don’t really exist that much anymore. In Belfield and in this part of the world, that culture does exist. It’s kind of like a time warp.”

After spending much of his childhood growing up on a ranch south of Belfield, Howie, 51, went where his passion for photography led him after high school, which included stops around the country and trips around the world.

Far from the windswept prairies of southwest North Dakota, Howie even found himself working for one of the most high-powered advertising reps in New York City in the late 1980s, presiding over commercial photography shoots for the likes of giants like Procter & Gamble.

“After graduating from the Colorado Institute of Art, I went to work for an ag company and went on the road shooting for a couple of years,” Howie said. “But I knew I wanted to go to New York and assist some big-timers out there. After talking to some people and getting some things lined up, I moved out there.”

Still in his 20s, Howie soon found himself working for Joe Toto, one of the busiest ad guys in the city.

“Joe was Italian and he was as New York as they come — he was larger than life,” Howie said. “Passion just spewed out of this guy and I heard him say some things to people that, being from North Dakota, just blew me away, but he knew how to put together a big time shoot. Everything we did with him was a big production. When I worked with Joe, he would push the button and advance the film, but everything else was my job.”

After a couple of years living on Long Island and commuting to Manhattan every day, Howie accepted a supervisory position with the same company that hired him out of college and later ended up in Phoenix, where he did a lot of high-end commercial shooting of everything from Hummers and tricked-out motorcycles to Fender guitars.

While in Arizona, Howie also worked on a number of projects for The Phoenix Art Museum and Arizona State University, but it was largely the enticement of a documentary project based in southwest North Dakota that drove Howie to return to his roots last year with his wife, Tess Howie.

Due for release this summer, Howie is currently spending much of his time producing, in partnership with the Ukrainian Cultural Institute, a documentary film called “Hardship to Freedom,” which will aim to “celebrate the spirit of the Ukrainian pioneers on their immigration to North Dakota,” in Howie’s words.

“I grew up around that whole culture,” Howie said. “I’m not Ukrainian, but a lot of my friends are. I wanted to do something to recognize that valuable little pocket of culture around Belfield. I heard some of the interviews that (UCI founder) Agnes Palanuk had done with some of those old pioneers that were still alive in the 70s and 80s. I just got it in my head that I wanted to do something on this, I approached Agnes and now it’s set to premier this summer.”

In addition to his work on Hardship to Freedom, Howie has also been working with the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame on a number of projects that will spotlight some of state’s most well-known cowboys and rodeo champions.

“Ken does fabulous work,” said Hall of Fame executive director Kevin Holten. “North Dakota’s Western and Native American history is one of its greatest assets, yet many people don’t know about it. Ken is from western North Dakota and he understands that history and can help bring it to people. His vision and our vision — we’re really on the same wavelength.”

In addition to his work on those projects, Howie said plans are also in the works for a documentary about a ranch in Dunn County that played a central role in some of the most talked-about events in the history of western North Dakota, including the famous Theodore Roosevelt “boat thieves” story.

Living with Ken near Fairfield, Tess, who has spent most of her life in Arizona, said she has enjoyed her time so far in North Dakota — even the sometimes brutal winter weather.

“I really like it here,” said Tess, who assists the operation in a number of areas, including writing and editing. “It’s been great so far. What I’ve noticed that really stands out is how much the people of North Dakota love North Dakota and what it’s about. That’s a neat thing.”

Though he basically grew up on a ranch (admittedly riding motorcycles instead of horses), Howie knew, as soon as he discovered it, that the chase of capturing the shot would lead him wherever he would go in life. Coincidentally, it has taken him full-circle.

“I’ve been really fortunate to do what I love to do,” Howie said. “Each part of the journey has its own place in your life. Even when Joe Toto was letting me have it and yelling at me in New York, it’s been a great journey. At one point, after I had been working with him for a few months, Joe put his arm around me and said ‘six months ago, you were in the pastures of North Dakota and now you’re in the advertising mecca of the world — isn’t that great?’ We both laughed because he was right.”

For more information on Howie’s forthcoming documentary on the Ukrainian pioneers of North Dakota, search “Hardship to Freedom” on Facebook or visit

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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