That’s how photographer Ryan Hartsock describes the late Amanda Peterson, whom he worked with on a 2012 photo shoot that would turn out to be her last.
Hartsock, of KR Productions/Twisted Pixels Photography, was behind the lens for Peterson’s motorcycle-chic shoot, in Greeley. In the images, the actress, who left Hollywood in 1994, wears knee-high leather boots and a tank top, a bandana holding back her ponytail. She poses in an antique car, on the back of a motorcycle and even with a snake wrapped around her neck.
Hartsock met the actress in May of 2012 after she agreed to help at an event that paired budding photographers with models to help both build their portfolios. Peterson, who initially signed on to help with model hair and makeup, instead spent most of the day advising the talent on life in the limelight.
“Her main goal was to in a positive way help people get acclimated, I guess you could say, to the industry through some of her experiences,” the Colorado native says. “It was a great time; people really enjoyed talking to her.”
After spending most of the day on set, Peterson herself suggested the “spontaneous” shoot.
Hartsock said the actress’ only stipulations were that the images weren’t photoshopped and that she got sole approval of which pictures were released to the public.
“Her thought was she’s beautiful how she is, and that’s how we portrayed her,” the photographer says.
Hartsock says he remained in touch with the actress, and they would meet up, often at Starbucks, every few months to discuss the photos and go over fan response.
“She had the greatest smile. I know it brightened her day when she got all the emails and fan mail from everybody,” he tells PEOPLE. “Really any time that we were together she was a kindhearted, great person.”
The photographer says the star’s death was a shock, and that Peterson seemed in good health whenever he spent time with her.
“I always thought she was healthy. I’ve never thought otherwise. She was a great gal,” he says.
Hartsock, who has been in touch with Peterson’s family, says they are “absolutely having a hard time.”
“If they’re going through anything close to what I’m going through with phone calls, which I’m sure on their end is 100 times worse, it’s awful,” he said. “It’s nonstop: phone calls, emails and stuff.”
The star’s autopsy report is still pending, but her mother, Sylvia Peterson, told PEOPLE she believes her daughter’s sudden death may have been related to various health issues, including sleep apnea.
“She was in bed, and she’d had a wonderful day, and we were planning on a dinner the next day,” Sylvia said of her daughter, “so it was just a very, very big surprise.”
• Reporting by EMILY ZAUZMER