The United States has more cellphones than it has people. And virtually all of those phones have built-in cameras. Taking a photograph has gone from an art to an act, as simple as drinking a glass of water.
So finding a stack of pictures of a trip into the Spanish Peaks in 1936 could easily be overlooked as just another pile of pre-digital status updates, a throwaway memento of another summer vacation.
“Except I don’t think many people back then had a stamp to put their name on the back,” said Marcia Hogan, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee who helped make a documentary of Missoula photographer Kenneth Dupee Swan.
The box from a Bozeman basement turned out to belong to Joseph C. Whitham, and held more than 1,000 negatives of the former forest supervisor’s photo collection. Mixed in were 40 black-and-white prints with Swan’s stamp on the back, documenting an adventure the men shared.
Whitham’s pictures touched more than 30 years of early Montana history, including a Fourth of July parade across Missoula’s Higgins Avenue Bridge in 1912, a portrait of the last surviving Crow Indian scout from the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1920, and log-hauling in the forests around Cooke City in 1927. He photographed people shoveling snow on sidewalks in Billings and tent-camping aside East Rosebud Lake in the Beartooth Mountains.
“J.C. was an advanced amateur,” said Museum of the Rockies photography curator Steven Jackson. “He was dedicated. There’s a lot of variety in negative quality, a lot of over- and under-exposure. But the majority are pretty good.”
Jackson scanned 100 photos from the box into the Museum of the Rockies’ online photo archive. About 40 of those images belong to Swan. And the difference is like the opening act and the headliner at a concert.
Swan and Whitham both came to Montana in 1911 as young foresters in a young Forest Service. It was a time, Hogan said, when the agency plunged into “the culture of the camera.”
“They came from the East and Midwest and were just enthralled with the West – the idea of these public lands,” Hogan said. “They wanted to take pictures and share them with the people to whom these lands now belonged.”
This was at a time when magazines like National Geographic were just starting to publish photos of the natural world. Landscape photographers like Ansel Adams were still 20 years from becoming accepted members of the art world. Painter Frederic Remington was drawing the Wild West for the covers of Colliers Magazine until he died in 1909. The Great Northern Railroad was hiring painters to depict its tourist destinations in Glacier National Park.
“Swan’s visual sense and ability to compose shows he was aware of the fine-art tradition in photography,” Jackson said. “At the time, art photography was disputed by the established art world. Teaching photography as fine art didn’t start until later. But the Boston scene was starting to recognize photography.”
That mattered for young Swan, who grew up in Massachusetts and went to Harvard for college. He joined the Forest Service under Gifford Pinchot, the friend of President Theodore Roosevelt who shared Teddy’s passion for the Great Outdoors.
One of Pinchot’s toughest jobs was to convince the American public that adding a bunch of national forests was a good idea. He chose to do it with photographs. So guys like Swan and Whitham found their private hobbies transformed into public campaigns.
“Outstanding among mountain lovers in the early years of the Forest Service was J.C. Whitham, one of those stalwarts who from the first recognized the value of the national forest wildlands for wilderness recreation,” Swan wrote in his memoir, “Splendid Was the Trail.” In 1936, Whitham was supervisor of the Gallatin National Forest, and an avid horse-packer.
“With elation I accepted Whit’s invitation to join a party which would spend several days – maybe a week – in the Spanish Peaks,” Swan wrote. The group arranged a mule string from the Ninemile Remount Depot west of Missoula and headed for the mountains.
Swan noted that at the time, there were few trails in the area. The Deerlodge National Forest supervisor was all in favor, as was the Butte Chamber of Commerce, which wanted photos for a tourism promotion.
“(Chamber officials) suggested we include some women in the party to pose in dude clothes,” he wrote. (Ranger Warren) Stillings agreed to bring his wife, Eleanor, provided Mrs. Swan would also join the expedition.”
Mrs. Swan is featured in several of the photos Jackson included in the new online archive. Hogan said Swan’s use of people and horses was an artistic as much as a documentary move.
“One of the hardest things with landscape photos is to convey the grandeur of scale,” she said. “The figures really help show that. And they also convey this great sense of fun and adventure.”
Nevertheless, Swan apparently avoided any artistic fame. Although his photos were framed on walls in Forest Service offices across the country, printed on map covers and inserted in reports to Congress, he seemed to see his talent simply as the key that opened the door to the wilderness.
“I don’t think my dad saw himself as anybody special,” said his daughter, Helen Swan Bolle, who lives in Missoula. “He just loved taking pictures. He loved the outdoors, and spent a lot of time with photography, but he was very humble and very embarrassed if anybody noticed him.”
Bolle, now 96, recalled driving up Pattee Canyon and other back roads with her father on evening photo forays. Not a photographer herself, she nevertheless was intrigued by his determination to get the perfect light.
“Everything had to be just exactly right,” Bolle said. “Lots of times we’d go out, wait for the sun to change, and lots of times it didn’t do that when it was supposed to. We would leave without having done anything.”
University of Montana historian Carlie Magill said such jaunts were far beyond the casual photobug’s snapshot.
“He mainly used a Graflex, with 4-by-5 dry plates,” Magill said. “He usually had more than one, and he would carry a tripod. Often he needed an extra mule that carried a lot of his camera equipment.”
Magill wrote her thesis on Gifford Pinchot’s use of photography to promote the Forest Service. Her work became a major resource for a video documentary Hogan and Libby Langston put together on Swan’s photographic legacy. “The World of K.D. Swan, Early 20th Century Photographer and Conservationist” aired on MontanaPBS channels in 2010. It’s now playing in the Missoula International Airport departure lounge and can be found at the Montana Historical Society store in Helena.
The Museum of the Rockies has put Swan’s and Whitham’s pictures in its online archive, along with other collections of historic Montana photography. Jackson said the box of pictures had been sitting on a shelf at the museum for years before he arrived in 1981, and it took until this year before he finally had time to sort through it.
“I’ve got two or three other collections just like that,” Jackson said. “One of these days I’ll get to them, too.”
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.