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Historical Photographs of the Flathead by Herman Schnitzmeyer (1880-1939)

January 19 - March 17, 2006


Historical Photographs of the Flathead by Herman Schnitzmeyer (1880-1939) will be on display at the Hockaday Museum of Art though March 17, 2006

Herman Schnitzmeyer (1880-1939) is noted for making a homestead claim on Wild Horse Island around 1910. He came to the Flathead Valley primarily as a homesteader and secondly as a photographer. He had been a commercial photographer in Illinois, where he was born in 1880, the son of German immigrant parents. Today, he is known for documenting noteworthy events in the Flathead and Mission Valleys, including several scenes from the Flathead Lake steamboat era, Teah T. Maroney's first float plane flight from Flathead Lake, and Frank M. Kerr at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kerr Dam. His artistic photographs captured the majesty of the scenery around Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountain Range. (right: Image of gallery, photo courtesy of Hockaday Museum of Art)

When the Flathead Reservation was opened for homestead settlement in 1910, 81,363 persons registered for the available 3,000 homestead sites in the first month. One of the successful settlers in the homestead drawing was Herman Schnitzmeyer, who chose Wildhorse Island as his home. Full of idealism, Schnitzmeyer named his homestead "Apollo Heights" and set about planting and building, but spent more time philosophizing as he was by nature a dreamer, not a farmer. By 1912, Schnitzmeyer was again producing photographs to supplement his income and joined in partnership with fellow homesteader Louis Desch. Together they sold real photo postcards of the local area. After proving up on his 160 acres and moving to Polson, Schnitzmeyer returned to photography as a full time profession and opened the Polson Studio, until selling the business to Julius Meiers, his apprentice, in 1922.

With the restraints and demands of maintaining a studio business gone, Schnitzmeyer was at liberty to pursue freelance assignments offered by the Northern Pacific Railroad. From 1922 to 1930 the photographer traveled throughout the Pacific Northwest, documenting Northern Pacific infrastructure and scenic routes.

In October 1923, he returned to Polson from a ten-week trip for the Northern Pacific in the Yellowstone and Teton country. His views of Jackson Lake and the Tetons were spectacular, as were his Yellowstone pictures. More than 30 of them appeared in a Northern Pacific brochure advertising the vacation amenities of that region. Schnitzmeyer said of the trip that he'd traveled "1,000 miles by auto and 200 miles on horseback. The experience was delightful and interesting, but at the same time exasperating and nerve wracking!" Quoted from Schnitzmeyer, Homestead Era Photographic Artist, by Paul Fugelberg, pp. 25-27. (right: Photograph of Herman Schnitzmeyer (1880-1939), courtesy of Hockaday Museum of Art)

Herman Schnitzmeyer has been characterized by those who knew him as "eccentric", "a perfectionist", "a genius with a camera", "a philosopher", "a rugged individualist", and ultimately "an artist". In spite of these qualifications for greatness, Schnitzmeyer and his work have remained relatively unknown outside the Flathead Valley and Western Montana.

Several reasons for this lack of national recognition can be postulated. As a photographer, Schnitzmeyer was far more interested in capturing the perfect image than in self-promotion. He would often spend hours getting just the right lighting and cloud formations, a trait that produced spectacular photos, but did not contribute to prolific productivity. He was particularly noted for a lack of business sense and failure to keep regular studio hours. Much of the local marketing effort was left to his friend and partner Louis Desch, who hand-tinted Schnitzmeyer's images, adding the element of color, and selling wholesale lots to retailers around Montana.

Secondly, Schnitzmeyer operated in the same time and place as renowned Glacier Park photographer Tomar J. Hileman, who was heavily promoted by both the Park and Great Northern Railroad. Hileman himself was a successful businessman with the foresight to retain the copyrights on his scenic photos.

Thirdly, in 1926, Schnitzmeyer sold much of his equipment along with many scenic views and negatives to Johan W. Rode, a Polson acquaintance, who first issued prints with the ink stamp "J.W. Rode, Polson, Mont. Successor to H. Schnitzmeyer". Later, Rode copyrighted and produced these photos under his own name, marketing them as "Scenic American Views" and selling from his headquarters in Berkeley, California, Rode often changed the original photo titles assigned by Schnitzmeyer to captions of his own choosing. Rode also produced massive enlargements, which far exceeded Schnitzmeyer's limited print size capabilities.

Finally, when Schnitzmeyer took free-lance assignments offered by the Northern Pacific Railroad, the copyrights on his work and negatives were often retained by his employer. These were used in promotional publications and as documentation of railroad infrastructure. (right: Mr. Frank M. Kerr with Indian Chiefs,at future site of Kerr Dam near Polson, May 31, 1930, photograph, by Herman Schnitzmeyer)

Regardless of the reasons for the relative obscurity of Herman Schnitzmeyer and his work, his photographic contributions continue to inspire us and provide a valuable insight to the history and scenic beauty of Western Montana, elevating moments in time to timeless works of art.

This exhibit presents a sampling of the photographic vision of Herman Schnitzmeyer, the color enhancements of Louis Desch, and the marketing acumen of Johan W. Rode. The cumulative impact of their efforts provides viewers with a deeper understanding of the early 20th century Flathead Valley and a continuing appreciation for the unsurpassed scenic views still enjoyed today.

The Museum will offer lectures by collector Denny Kellogg on Tuesday, February 21 at 5:30 pm and Friday, February 24 at 3:00 pm, in which he will discuss Schnitzmeyer's work and show additional photographs by Schnitzmeyer of Wyoming, Montana and other areas from the Northern Pacific Railroad collection.

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