Thursday, April 18, 2024

Sharp shooter captured a town

| January 28, 2024 12:00 AM

In these weather-bound days I hole up and read for hours. I finished a book about Lucie Duff Gordon, a London intellectual and translator who fled to Egypt in the mid-1800s to save her health and fell in love with life in Luxor.

The biography made me grateful I wasn’t in the desert and that a life could be so fully reconstructed — and imagined — based on long letters between Duff Gordon and her family and friends. Their vivid descriptions brought places in England, Europe and the Middle East alive, and showed what it was like to move about more than 150 years ago. 

What will biographers use to delineate our lives in the future: databases of texts and emails, screenshots of snaps and chats? Though more plentiful, do these records replace the reflective process of thought-to-handwriting?

At the Northwest Montana History Museum hangs a new show, “The Photography of Ray Weaver.” Both the Duff Gordon biography and the Weaver images make me wonder about what we leave behind. 

Every picture in the Weaver exhibit merits a story. For example, there’s the troop train — a group shot of soldiers at the Kalispell Depot circa 1940. The soldiers are in uniform, but their figures appear slight, young.

A scattering of little kids is there to see them off; one has flung a bicycle to the ground. 

Weaver was a careful photographer, but this print is fuzzy, the faces not clear. Imagine what the World War I veteran behind the lens may have thought. Was it: You won’t come back the same. If you come back.

Weaver knew about war.

Michael P. Malone, a respected historian and former president of Montana State University, wrote that Montana suffered some of the most losses per capita of any state in World War II, “exceeded only by New Mexico.” 

For as many images as Weaver made — thousands probably, some of which are in the museum archives — it’s frustrating how little we know about him. Born in Iowa in 1892, Weaver moved with his family to the Flathead in 1911. He went off to battle a few years later.

He came back wounded from a mustard gas attack in the trenches of France, and was unable to work. Instead, he picked up a camera. For decades he trained it on Kalispell, snapping candids of parade assembly at the depot, swimmers at the city pool and the aftermath of a car accident downtown. The latter picture combines theater and journalism.

In two dozen mentions in local newspapers from 1913 to 1964, Weaver mostly is linked to his military service, including awards he received and veterans groups. He sponsored kids’ rifle teams, and traveled around the state with them. He is never quoted, but there are references to him taking his “picture machine” on trips around Montana to document wildlife and landscape. He often presented images as entertainment to clubs around Kalispell.

A sniper in wartime, Weaver applied his sharp eye, compositional feel and familiarity of place to his camera work. 

Maybe he was shy. Maybe he wrote nothing, or wrote a lot — but the words haven’t surfaced. For now, his photography speaks for itself.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at