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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

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Man lying in a coffin
(Maura McCarthy)

Here lies Christian Barthlemess, at rest amid the trappings of domesticity, family portraits on the wall, embroidered curtains drawn back to let in the light. Photographing the deceased was a common form of remembrance in 1906, when Morrison took this picture. He imbued the scene with a tranquility that does nothing to suggest the nature of Barthelmess’s death, which occurred just before his 52nd birthday: according to his grandson Casey Barthelmess, he was essentially pulled apart during an effort to rescue him after the collapse of a sewer trench he had been digging near Fort Keogh’s hospital.

Barthelmess was born in Bavaria in 1854 and emigrated to the United States as a teenager. He enlisted in the Army in 1876 and served at several Western outposts before settling at Fort Keogh, where he served as a musician with the regimental band and, beginning in 1888, as the post photographer. Like Morrison, he worked with glass negatives even in an era when the far simpler Kodak camera was readily available; the older process yielded photographs of exceptional clarity and depth, as this portrait shows—you can practically feel the spaces between the lily and the casket, the draped flag and the corner of the room.

Barthelmess compiled an extraordinary record of frontier military life, picturing soldiers in the field and at play, in the mess hall and barracks. But after he died, his widow and seven children lacked official status and were summarily kicked off the post. She hung on to some loose vintage prints and two albums containing more than 400 of her husband’s pictures (some of which were published in 1965 in Photographer on an Army Mule, a book co-written by their son Casey Barthelmess), but asked Morrison to store the bulky negatives. Now more than 500 of Barthelmess’s negatives are emerging amid the 3,687 glass plates in the Morrison collection.

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