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Ravalli County’s most famous photographer is known for his images that captured the beauty of his home state.

For years, those well-known images have taken center stage when the Ravalli County Museum hosted its annual Ernst Peterson Photo Contest.

This year, the museum is going to take a step further back in time to a day when Peterson served in the U.S. Army toward the end of World War II.

By then, the young man had already developed an interest in photography and was developing a keen eye for light and composition.

He took those skills along with him to China, Burma and India to capture images of a way of life that many never knew existed.

For years, those Ektachrome slides and black-and-prints from the war years were along the tens of thousands of images safely stored away in the museum’s vaults.

This year – when the museum officially opens its annual Ernst Peterson contest for public viewing on Feb. 9 – visitors will be offered a chance to see for the first time a collection of Peterson's photographs from his military adventure.

The Ravalli County Museum’s Noellynn Pepos has been working for weeks to sift through the hundreds of images that Peterson captured of people, buildings and landscapes of the Asian countryside.

“I think it’s important to note to folks that these images were shot during the war but are not of combat,” Pepos said. “Instead, they depict the World War II-era culture of China, Burma and India.”

Pepos discovered the photographs several years ago after being invited to the American Alliance of Museums conference that included sessions focused on exhibition exchanges with China.

When she researched the Peterson database, she was surprised to find photographs from that country. The couple of dozen that she took with her to the conference resulted in great conversations with her colleagues.

“We have a heightened sense of visual awareness when language becomes a rhythm,” Pepos said. “I am drawn to these rich images shot early in his life prior to his commercial career.”

It was obvious too that Peterson was intrigued by the new culture that he was experiencing.

On the back of one of the photographs, he wrote: “One of the two types of creatures seen in sculptures everywhere. Sometime I hope to get the story and significance of these. China 1945.”

“It is an image of a stone dragon holding a pearl,” Pepos said. “Peterson was always learning, always exploring throughout his lifetime.”

The museum has most of Peterson’s collection. It includes about 21,000 transparencies, that include both positive and negative images. So far, about 11,100 of those have been cataloged in a database that can be searched by subject, location and other aspects.

The museum has also digitally scanned about 2,300 images,  and has about 9,000 black-and-white prints, plus a collection of camera equipment and other items from Peterson.

The Ernst Peterson Photo Journal WWII: China, Burma and India show will open on Feb. 9 at 6 p.m. It will run through Feb. 23.

Ravalli County Museum Director Tamar Stanley said photographs are still being accepted for this year’s contest. The contest includes three new categories that should appeal to younger photographers: selfies, memes and photobombs.

The money raised from the contest helps pay for preserving Peterson’s collection.


Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.