- Associated Press - Sunday, January 24, 2016

CHAPMAN, Neb. (AP) - Faye Zmek is in the memory business - because she has experienced how precious those memories can be.

It was Aug. 5, 1994, when Zmek booked a graduation photo session for her 17-year-old Northwest High senior-to-be, Shayla. Zmek then headed over to Kearney to have Shayla’s horse, Good Time Lark, reshoed.

Shayla and Lark had just won reserve champion reining honors two weeks prior at the Fonner Park State 4-H Horse Expo in Grand Island.

With the school year nearly ready to start, Shayla and her boyfriend decided to spend the day in Omaha and take in some Legion baseball.

Shayla never made it home.

Her boyfriend ran a stop sign at U.S. Highway 275 and West Dodge Road. A semi-truck hit the passenger side, where Shayla was riding.

“He survived, she didn’t, and life changed,” Zmek said.

The Grand Island Independent (https://bit.ly/1PGZTjC ) reports that she continued to take care of Lark and still does. He’ll be 30 this year.

But in the weeks and months after the accident, Zmek knew she needed something more to do - something to help her through the grief.

To go in each thank you card she sent, Zmek had taken a picture of every funeral bouquet next to a psuedo-senior portrait that she had taken of Shayla when the mother and daughter had been out scouting an outdoor setting on the family acreage for Shayla’s real senior pictures. Those photos, plus wallets she had made of Shayla’s portrait, caught people’s eye.

Zmek began to get calls to take wedding photos, senior photos. She declined - at first - but then realized how she has loved photography since high school, and of course, she loved horses. Perhaps the two passions could be melded.

She felt she had the time to pursue a new career. Her degree in recreational leadership had led to work at the YMCA and she later worked at Fed-Ex, but more importantly, Shayla’s accident gave Zmek some newfound courage.

“To be brave enough to do it, to stick your nose out - photographers stick their nose out - and I just didn’t do that,” Zmek said. “After losing Shayla, I figured no one could hurt me more than I had already been hurt.”

So she went to a photography seminar in Arizona as a way to keep her “head busy” and not always thinking about Shayla.

Zmek found her niche.

She started with some local horse shows, including the State 4-H Horse Expo at Fonner Park. She began traveling across the country from December to October, photographing nothing but horse shows.

“She is gifted,” said Carol McWhirter of Dan McWhirter Quarter Horses in Doniphan. “She is special in her ability to capture the essence of the horse.”

That essence means making sure the photos accentuate each horse’s best strengths. When taking a show award photo, Zmek is careful to position the horse so that all four legs and both eyes are visible and the ears are cocked forward in interest.

She stands back a good 40 feet and zooms in with a long lens so that proportions are correct. That requires the two front feet to be slightly offset so that they appear right in line after the zoom.

“It’s a real process,” said Sharon Dickinson, who serves as Zmek’s part-time photo assistant to help set the horse in the correct position and get the animal’s attention for ear placement.

Dickinson also lost a child in a car accident and worked on the Heartfelt Children’s Memorial in her home of Seward that Zmek supports with gratis photography.

The two mothers have found a kinship as they work to set and photograph horses. Zmek stands back for the overall look and tells what changes are needed.

“It’s quite difficult to get the perfect shot,” McWhirter said. “But she’s patient and she knows her stuff.”

Zmek has photographed hundreds of McWhirter stallions for breeding purposes. She has also taken portraits of each horse that the McWhirters have sold, as part of a lasting tribute to that animal.

Zmek is a stickler for capturing each animal with extended strong legs while moving. That can take many tries for that split second in a trot when the light and mane and tail and legs and ears are all just perfect.

But what she won’t do is photo edit any details of the horse that aren’t quite right or don’t look as good as they could.

“She is extremely ethical and principled,” McWhirter said. “She won’t airbrush or correct a flaw. She won’t correct a confirmation flaw.”

Zmek’s attention to detail and integrity have led her to the pastures of million dollar horses in Ohio and horse shows around the country.

She’s sought out by some of the country’s top breeders, including the McWhirters who have been in the top 10 leading quarter horse breeders.

“She is a really gifted person. She’s the best,” McWhirter said.

But no matter how busy she is, Zmek is never too busy to get an electronic version of a photo sent off to a local newspaper to garner young riders some publicity with their horses.

“Zmek’s photos capture the heart of special equine moments to help lock them into people’s memories and hearts,” said Kristan Gray, who has used Zmek’s photos as a staff writer at the Bellevue Leader, Papillion Times/La Vista Sun. “She truly offers a great service for her clients.”

This past year, Zmek has worked to stay a little closer to home. She shot the Cornhusker Classic in Lincoln, the Paint Championship in Lincoln, the Nebraska Quarter Horse Silver Classic, the Ak-Sar-Ben 4-H Horse Show, as well as the horse expo at Fonner Park.

Her work, including photos of Lark, have been included on magazine covers such as Stable Kids and Stable Connections.

Lark’s likeness has even been cast in bronze for a traveling riding trophy. The bronze is called “The Empty Saddle,” a title that makes Zmek cry, even today.

“Between Lark and Shayla is how this all started,” Zmek said. “It’s quite a legacy of what’s happened and what she created.”

___

Information from: The Grand Island Independent, https://www.theindependent.com

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