- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—A collection of photographs documenting approximately 100 years of Butte history may be one step closer to becoming accessible to the public.

The Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives applied for a $253,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission in June to sort, clean, process and scan the more than 25,000 negatives from the expansive C. Owen Smithers Photograph Collection.

The Archives acquired the collection in 2013 with help that included $58,000 from Dianne Kimball and the $50,000 from the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, as well as numerous small donations. The Archives paid $120,000 for the collection.

But two years later, the public cannot view the rows of material stored in a climate-controlled back room at the archives, 17 W. Quartz St. The work is in such fragile condition it cannot be touched.

The collection went through fire and water damage before it reached the Archives’ hands. Some of the negatives were burned, melted or got a soaking.

Aubrey Jaap, Archives administrative assistant, said the facility has never dealt with a collection this big or in this kind of shape.

Much of the work consists of negatives of Smithers’ photographs. Part of the work that needs to be done is to process those negatives. They also need to be cleaned. Some need professional restoration.

The photographs include businesses, street corners, mining activities, gambling, crime scenes and fires.

Smithers captured people, too, from presidents who came through Butte to paupers huddling on city streets. Smithers established his own commercial photography studio in 1927 but he also worked as a freelance photographer for the Anaconda Standard and took many photographs that wound up on the front page of the newspaper.

Frank Quinn, former editor of the Montana Standard, called Smithers the “photographer historian” of Butte.

Jaap said the collection documents Butte’s history from its day as a cosmopolitan city to the hard times during the Depression and the following resurgence. Smithers took photographs of the town and its people up until his death in 1970.

“No other collection is this full or this complete,” Jaap said.

Irene Scheidecker, senior technical services archivist, said the collection “documents the changing face of Butte’s landscape.”

The collection includes an early negative called glass plates. Some of those glass plates are Smithers’ own. Some are from earlier photographers who came to Montana as far back as the 1860s and shot film of Montana’s early towns and people.

If the Archives gets the grant — staff won’t know until January 2016 — the work will begin in 2016. Scheidecker said to get the entire collection accessible will be a five-year process. She said the grant will enable the Archives to hire additional temporary staff to help them get the work done.

The first step will be to sort through the collection and clean what they can in-house. Jaap said some of the work will have to be sent to a professional conservationist. The grant will not cover that costs.

The Archives will have to seek additional money for that portion of the project. Those costs are still unknown because the Archive isn’t sure how much of the collection will need professional conservation work.

“It’s in such fragile condition, we don’t want to touch it more than once,” Jaap said.

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(c)2015 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.)

Visit The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.) at www.mtstandard.com

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