JIM SHEPKA HAS NEW MEXICO’S FILM INDUSTRY to thank for much of his recent work. A former Marine who first came to the Land of Enchantment to visit his brother in the 1980s, Shepka retired to Rio Rancho in 2020 after a corporate career that took him from New England to Colorado and the Netherlands, with plenty of stops in between.

Shepka picked up the photography bug from his father, who carried a camera with him while serving overseas during World War II. “When I went into the Marine Corps, I always threw a little Instamatic camera in the left pocket of my trousers,” he recalls. “I always just kind of took pictures just as a hobby.”

Shepka was working as a docent at the Wheels Museum, in Albuquerque, when two filmmakers came in looking for props. The visit landed him a two-month gig as a still photographer for Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch and Butch vs. Sundance, which filmed in Santa Fe and Albuquerque in 2021. A picture he captured of a Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad engineer while scouting for the film earned third place in our 2021 Photography Contest.

This year, Shepka’s Hard Days Ride, of several riders on horseback, combined many of his passions for a first-place award in the New Mexico Experience category. “I have just always been around horses,” says Shepka, who grew up across from a dairy farm that became a Belgian horse rescue. He began photographing rodeos and now lives near the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort & Spa and its rescue horses. When a Dallas ad agency needed someone for a series of Chevy commercials being shot here, Shepka got a call. They spent a week filming, including a day at the Tamaya stables. As the sun was setting behind the ridgeline, Shepka asked the riders to meander over that way, fired off two backlit shots, and assumed he’d gotten nothing. “I saw that image and said, ‘Wow, what just happened?’ ” he recalls.

What he captured is one of my favorite images from this year’s contest—an experience that harks back to our Old West heritage, but also our movie-making present. It’s cinematic yet grounded, mythic yet real, elemental yet spiritual. It’s also something Shepka strives for in his work. “There’s something about the grand spaces out here,” he says.

It’s also what judges looked for when reviewing more than 1,800 submissions to this year’s contest. “Every picture has a story, and every story has a picture,” Shepka says.

Read more: From a great horned owl taking flight to the joys of a Jemez Pueblo wedding, these images reflect the beauty, wonder, and complexity of enchanting moments big and small all around us.