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Preserving Montana’s history through photographs

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HELENA – If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the more than 600,000 images stored at the Montana Historical Society can speak upward of 600,000,000 words about the stories that make up the state’s past.

It’s been just a few years since the Montana Historical Society acquired this collection of more than 1,300 photographs chronicling life on the Crow reservation, representing the work of several dozen photographers, and compiled by Bud Lake and Randy Brewer.

“It was one of the best collections of historic Crow photography anywhere,” said senior photograph archivist Jeff Malcomson.

The Lake and Brewer Collection is one of many housed in the photo archives of the Montana Historical Society. Malcomson said photos are an important part of chronicling history.

“It’s a direct link to the past. It’s an image that captures what actually happened in a moment, or it captures somebody’s face, how they looked, what they looked like, they’re clothing. So you can learn a lot from looking at photographs,” Malcomson said.

Recently, the descendants of photographer Fred Miller donated his work to the archives. Much of Miller’s work had been spread across the globe after being sold at auction following his death in the 1930s. Some glass negatives were destroyed in a flood.

Miller worked as a clerk on the Crow reservation for about a dozen years.

“His Crow name was Boxpotapesh,” said Malcomson, “which means high-kicker because he taught everybody he knew football. So he was known for his love of football.”

He added, “They were a part of the community. So because of that they were able to take much more intimate photographs and document a lot more of Crow life than perhaps other photographers.”

Miller’s granddaughter and great-granddaughter traveled extensively to piece back the collection.

“(They) were the ones who pretty much took on with a passion the pursuit of Fred Miller photographs,” said Malcomson. “And they went all over the country and all over the world trying to track down vintage photographic material that was Fred Miller.”

And gifted it to the Montana Historical Society. Eventually, the collection will join the more than 600,000 images available for the public to explore, once the photo archives department finishes its work processing and cataloging the collection.

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