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Ernst Peterson’s iconic photos captured Montana’s people, mountains, wildlife, livestock and farms, each framed under big skies.

Peterson’s photos catalogued Montana beginning in about 1950 and went until about 1970. His work was published in National Geographic, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post and elsewhere. His collection was in 1992 donated to the Bitter Root Valley Historical Society by his family, and some 21,000 of the images now sit in vaults in the county museum.

Though safe, the museum can not stop the photos, hand-tinted prints, slides and movies from succumbing to time.

“Some of these are decomposing,” said Tamar Stanley, the museum’s director.

Library staff and volunteers have worked for years to catalog the photos and add identifiers to each one. Now, thanks to a state grant, staff and volunteers can begin work to remake the originals into digital files.

The $5,000 grant will be added to museum funds which have already been put to use to buy equipment to begin the digitizing process.

Stanley said staff will prioritize images to be digitized. The entire process will take four years.

Photos will be put on the museum’s new Web site and some will be available for purchase.

“We want to make this accessible to the public,” Stanley told the county board of commissioners at a recent meeting.

“A lot of this is really dramatic stuff,” Stanley said later while in the museum basement thumbing through some of Peterson’s photos. “We have his whole life’s work here.”

Museum staff recently moved much of the collection into a better storage room away from moisture and temperature swings, said museum staff member Bill Whitfield.

“We have not lost anything,” he said. “They are in a much better space now.”

Reproduced photos will be available online and at the site, Stanley said.

“It’s a marketable product,” she said. “And with the Web site we will be able to make them available to the public.”

The museum this year will hold the 19th annual Ernst Peterson “Photograph Montana” contest.

There are categories for professional and amateur, color and black and white, and people, domestic animals, wild animals, macro, flower, structures, abstract/manipulated and humorous. There is also a junior category for photographers 12 and under.

Professional photographers will hold workshops in conjunction with the event.

Submissions are due Jan. 15. Photos will be exhibited from Feb. 3 to April 15, with the awards ceremony April 4.

For more information, see www.brvsmuseum.org or call 363-3338. The museum is at 205 Bedford St. in Hamilton.

Reach Jeff Schmerker at jeff.schmerker@ravallirepublic.com or 363-3300 ext. 26.

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