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HAMILTON – Legendary and prolific Bitterroot Valley photographer Ernst Peterson, born in 1912, had an uncanny knack for capturing the beauty of agriculture, the pure joy of outdoor activities like hunting, fishing and skiing, and the magnitude of Montana’s natural landscapes through his lens.

Many aspects of the lifestyles he photographed, from clothing trends to farming practices, have disappeared or changed drastically. That’s why his documentation of them is so important and valuable today.

After Ernst’s death in 1991, his family donated 22,000 of his stunning photos to the Ravalli County Museum, and a massive effort is underway to digitize the collection to preserve it into perpetuity.

“Most of Peterson’s images offer a historical glimpse of mid-century rural Montana,” said Sarah Monson, a program coordinator at the museum.

His photos make time-travel possible. There are young men wildly riding bison at a rodeo in Moiese. There are images of cattlemen, family picnics, fishing excursions on the Bitterroot River and all manner of glorious landscapes, from waterfalls to mountains. It seems a camera was never far from his hand for his entire life, and he was well-traveled.

Ernst’s photography began as a hobby when he got a Best pocket camera for his 14th birthday, and after World War II he was hired by industrial behemoths the Anaconda Co., Dow Chemical and Montana Power Co., which used his photos in advertising. Eventually Ernst, a Hamilton resident and Montana native, scored contracts with major publications like National Geographic, the Saturday Evening Post, Country Gentlemen and Collier’s, to name a few.

The Ravalli County Museum serves the public as a historical repository and an educational and cultural hub for the Bitterroot Valley, so the staff there is taking their duty to care for Ernst’s photos seriously.

Longtime museum supporter Ken McBride has volunteered countless hours carefully cleaning, scanning, toning, naming and sorting the photos. He has had help from other volunteers, and so far they’ve gotten through about 2,000.

Much of Ernst’s work was on 4-by-5-inch medium-format slides, but he later switched to film. The process of going through that many photos and negatives is painstaking, but McBride finds enjoyment sifting through history.

“I fell in love with this project,” he explained from his chair in the basement of the museum, gazing at a photo of skiers rejoicing on the slopes in goofy outfits at Lost Trail Powder Mountain before there were any chairlifts.

Ernst seemed to gravitate toward pastoral scenes. He loved to capture elderly gentlemen with weathered faces, carrying fishing poles and walking with their grandchildren. He shot images of “beaver slide” hay stackers in the Big Hole Valley. In one scene, children are seen in the background on a makeshift log raft in a mountain lake while a moose casually wades in the foreground. And there are lots and lots of photos of cattle and ranching.

“He loved cows,” McBride said, grinning.

The museum hosts an annual Ernst Peterson “Photograph Montana” Contest, now in its 23rd year, to preserve his legacy and encourage more people to document history like he did.

During the contest, the museum displays a portion of his works. This year’s exhibit, “(S)now and Then” focuses on pictures that depict wintertime activities, such as bobcat hunting and snowshoeing.

For the contest, photographers submit their photos, and judges pick winners in different categories, including Best in Show, People’s Choice and Beyond Montana. The regular entry deadline closed Jan. 30, but a late deadline has been extended to Feb. 4. The fee for the extended deadline is $5 per entry. Submitted images become part of the exhibit, and are displayed on the second floor of the museum from Feb. 11 through April 14.

This year, the community for the first time is being asked to participate in the Peterson exhibit by submitting a story, poem, drawing or other creative work of their own to illustrate their favorite winter memory. Those entries are free. Names of entrants will be submitted into a drawing for a special prize.

“Proceeds from the contest are used to continue our mission to preserve and protect the heritage of the Bitterroot Valley and its people,” Monson said.

The award ceremony is March 3 at 6 p.m. at the museum.

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at


Reporter for the Ravalli Republic.