Disappearing act

Jeremy Lurgio turns his lens on lost—and found—towns of Montana

| August 02, 2012

In 2000, the Department of Transportation—in its effort to switch from analog to digital mapping—decided to revamp of the Montana map. Maps change constantly, but this rendering put 18 towns on the chopping block. Nine of those towns would stay on the map and 9 would go, and the decision would be based on several criteria: They looked at post offices, population and census data and they did on-the-ground research to see which places still maintained attributes of a town.

What does it mean for a town to disappear off the map? That seems like a particularly poignant act—however practical—with psychological consequences. What once was a town for generations is now dust in the wind. The poet Richard Hugo, if he were still with us today, would likely have something to say about the post offices, dilapidated bars and barren schoolyards and about this whole disappearing act.

Fortunately, we do have photographer Jeremy Lurgio.

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Lurgio's multimedia exhibit Lost & Found Montana opens at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography Gallery this First Friday. It combines 36 photographs with audio interviews, video and written statements profiling each of the 18 lost and saved Montana farming, mining and mountain towns. The ambitious project has taken some time: Lurgio, a freelance photographer and a UM associate professor of journalism and multimedia, first heard of the towns in 2000, when he came across some news articles about them while he was teaching at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. The idea of the towns ate at him. Several times he had to put his ideas about them on the back burner, but in 2005 he started to really explore the idea of depopulation and town identity. Over the course of the last few years, he's pieced together grant funding from the Montana Arts Council, the University of Montana Grant Program, Humanities Montana and UM's School of Journalism, which helped him travel more than 7,000 miles across Montana to report on the towns.

"I wanted to go photograph what these places are like—that's what it started out as," says Lurgio who grew up on the East Coast, where towns tend to emerge and stay put forever. "It was going to be a gallery show with just photographs. Period."

But one of the first towns he visited, Flatwillow, got him thinking about the narrative of the towns. In Flatwillow, near Lewistown, he met the only two families still living in the town. "I called the guy and talked to him and told him what I was doing," Lurgio says. "He was very forthright about it. He was one of the guys who spoke out to the newspapers and said, 'Hey! We're still here!'" The families thought that if they could preserve the town hall, which had been a community gathering point from the Great Depression through the 1950s, they could keep Flatwillow on the map. They threw a big community dance to raise money for the town hall. The next year they threw a second one. Lurgio attended that second dance and photographed the liveliness of the place. The revival of the town hall kept Flatwillow on the map.

So, from there, Lost & Found Montana became more complex. The photographs alone are stunning: towns that stayed on the map are depicted in color and the towns that were erased are in black-and-white. But there's more: Viewers of the exhibit can connect to QR codes and hear short interviews with town residents. (If you don't have a smart device, Lurgio will provide a few at the gallery). The interviews are linked to Lurgio's website, which will have even more material to browse: mini-documentaries, 360-degree panoramas and interactive maps where people can submit photos of their own Montana hometown and say whether it's still on the map or not.

For the project, Lurgio talked with the Department of Transportation to get a better idea of their take on the process. "They said it's a really hard thing to do, to revise a map," he says. The department still keeps old maps, which have been useful to historians or people trying to track down an old family homestead. But new maps need to make sense. "It really came down to population," says Lurgio. "If you had a population of one or more year-round residents, you had every right to stay on the map. But they looked at [other] town characteristics, too. At the end of the day, they ask county commissioners and sheriffs departments and people in those communities to [evaluate the towns]."

Lurgio visited Maiden, an old mining town—essentially a ghost town—that was revamped by one man and preserved by the man's grandson, a miner who's now in his 60s. Ross Fork, which did disappear from the map, still has a handful of families farming the area, but there's virtually nothing else that makes it a town. Alpine, a mountain town south of Roscoe, stayed on the map because the caretaker of the storied seasonal cabins on East Rosebud Lake lives there year-round. He got a chance to see places he didn't know existed. And it's possible the people in the towns got to see—through Lurgio's lens—the last standing monuments of their town in a new light.

Lurgio tells the story of the town of Horton, a railroad stop between Miles City and Forsyth. His photograph of Frank Hartman is both lonely and fondly nostalgic. Hartman no longer lives in Horton—though he lives nearby. His father was the last man living in Horton until 1999, when he was hit by a train and killed. Lurgio met with Hartman in Horton and got a tour of the remnants, which Lurgio photographed: an old farmhouse, a schoolyard and aged farm equipment.

"There was definitely some sadness to it," says Lurgio. "It was a railroad town and the last guy got hit by a train, which is just kind of a sad irony. But his son is a really wonderful man. ... And he said, 'Thank you. It's been nice for me to remember.' It was cool that he got something out of it."

Lost & Found Montana opens at the RMSP Gallery Friday, Aug. 3, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Free. Go to lostandfoundmontana.com to visit Lurgio's project.

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