Polishing a Pearl

by Maddy Udell

Pearl Walthall works to make her impact on the livestock industry by helping exhibitors get the best pictures of their livestock. Pearl, the unofficial photographer of the Simmental breed, has served as the official photographer of the AJSA National Classic for seven years.

Walthall has been involved in agriculture since she was young.  She grew up on a crop farm in Ohio where her parents had a feedlot and predominantly Hereford cattle. When she was nine years old, she began showing steers for her grandfather, Karl Nims. “My grandfather used to load cattle on the railroad cars and go from city to city showing cattle,” Walthall said. “He was hoping that one of his children or grandchildren would also want to show. Well, I did, and he started by giving me steers every year to show,” she continued,  “Showing steers led me to meet people in the breeding industry, and my career started professionally when I was 16.”

Growing up in the show industry gave Walthall opportunities to meet people involved in all facets of the industry. While attending Ohio State University, Walthall interned for Glenkirk Farms, a Hereford and Simmental operation in Maysville, Missouri. One of her most memorable experiences while working for the farm happened at the National Western Stock Show in Denver: “I was outside brushing on cattle, before you used a blower, and one of the people I was working for came out to where I was working and was for some reason upset with me,” Walthall said, “He looked right at me and told me the only reason I had this job was because of the way I looked and I was taking up a good man’s job!”

“I didn’t get mad or upset”, she said. “I decided right then and there I was going to have to do my job better than a man. So, from then on, I tried to work harder and outperform any other person at any job I tried to accomplish. I will always be grateful for that short conversation. I owe this person a great deal of my success,” she explained.

Walthall’s work ethic did not stop there. She worked her way up in the show industry taking jobs with some of the nation’s top breeders until eventually settling down in Windsor, Missouri with her husband, Greg Walthall, to start the couple’s own fitting service, which they ran for 20 years.

The fitting service gave the Walthall’s the opportunity to work with some of the nation’s top cattle operations and their top genetics. They also built up their own herd of Simmental and SimAngus cattle. Walthall started taking photos of their donors and the cattle for sale through their fitting service.  “I started taking the photos needed with a manual film Nikon camera,” she said. “We would have several people comment on the photos, asking who photographed the animals. When they found out it was me, they asked if I would be an on-location photographer for their operation.”

And so began Pearl’s Pics. When people discovered the quality of Walthall’s livestock photographs, they trusted her to take promotional pictures for sales and advertising. “I started the show photography because we couldn’t get promotional-quality photos at many of the shows to help market our animals,” Walthall said. “Because I would set up as many as 35 animals at the backdrop at any one given show for many years, I thought I might have some knowledge of what it takes to get the animal in the proper position for a good promotional picture. This is where I learned that I was a photographer, not a magician!”

Walthall also uses her skill in other areas. “I also photograph weddings, families, and seniors,” she said. “I have kept my weddings and seniors in the livestock area. Livestock people walk, talk and act differently than non-livestock people. It is very easy for me to communicate with agricultural kids and their families, and this seems to make the photography sessions be relaxed and fun,” Walthall said.

Today, Walthall photographs shows all across the country. “I have photographed various regional shows for just about every cattle breed and also photograph the National Junior Angus Show every year,” she said. “I enjoy this one because it keeps me updated on my Angus genetics for our SimAngusTM program.

“I am the lead photographer at the Missouri State Fair, which means I am in charge of every department of photography at the fair. I also photograph various jackpot shows throughout the year and have photographed many other breed junior nationals,” Walthall said.

The National Classic remains Walthall’s favorite. She brings a full staff with her to many of the shows she photographs, but one of her most important helpers at the show is her husband. They work together to capture the highest quality photo possible of each animal that comes to the backdrop.“Watching Pearl and Greg work together at the backdrop to achieve that ‘ideal’ photo of your animal is just amazing,” said Beverly Englert, a seven-year employee of Pearl’s Pics. “She knows exactly what she is looking for whether it happens to be a sale animal, steer, heifer or promotional bull photo.” Cattle conformation has always been the most important part of finding the best shot of any given animal, Englert explained.

“Pearl’s knowledge and years as a breeder and fitter make her all the better as a photographer,” said Julie Mattson, a four-year employee of Pearl’s Pics. “Hearing her work with exhibitors at the backdrop in setting up their animals, and then seeing it unfold on my computer screen in frame-by-frame continuous shoot mode has been a learning experience.”

“Moving that foot one inch, shifting the weight ever so slightly, turning the head a bit transforms into a good picture being a great picture,” Mattson added.

Walthall cares about more than just the champions being pictured. She strives to ensure that “every kid gets pictured, not just the popular ones or the winners,” Mattson said. “With everything Walthall has accomplished, she loves to teach her employees and exhibitors everything she can about the livestock industry and photography,” said Mattson. Walthall said her main goal for the future is to pass on her success to her customers and see them have the same success she has had. One goal that she has for the future is to photograph one of the three major livestock shows again, and with this, watch the success of her genetics continue on a stage of this size.