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(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)

Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana

The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century

Man-baptizing-woman-in-a-river-8

Man baptizing woman in a river with people watching
(Maura McCarthy)

The frontier had its share of the devout along with the debauched. In 1880, a Catholic couple carried their baby from their ranch to Fort Keogh—it took 21 days on horseback—so the child could be baptized. Three years later the fort’s Catholic chaplain, summoned to a distant jail to administer the last rites to a snakebitten man, was surprised to see that “every prisoner...prayed for him on their knees. Some prayed out loud.” The patient survived. (Though when a Lutheran minister in 1906 arranged to borrow Miles City’s county jail for a service, he wrote, “I hope it’s empty about the time we are ready to use it.”)

Around 1900 Morrison got himself onto some high point for a God’s-eye view of a baptism in the Tongue River outside Miles City. Wind ripples the water and ruffles the hair of the preacher intoning the words that will usher a woman into the faith and into the tight little group on the shore. But the baptizer and the baptized, gently holding hands, seem deeply intent, apart as they are from everything and everybody in the middle of the river.

Add up all the congregants in this frame and you don’t even get to 20–so you’d think that Morrison would have come up with a composition to make the event look bigger. (The Tongue wasn’t much of a river at that time of year, and Morrison could have done something compositionally to fix that, too.) But he pulled back and aimed his camera at eternity, giving us an endless river twisting into invisibility.

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