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Blazing trails

The forest photography of K.D. Swan



Just above Amanda Burbank’s modest corner desk hangs a two-level shelf containing 16 neatly placed 4-inch-thick binders. Inside each of the binders are hundreds of photocopied historical photographs, all property of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service.

“We started with these,” says Burbank, archives manager for the Service’s Northern Region, holding one volume of the set, “and we just started marking all the ones by K.D.” As Burbank flips through the pages in the binder it seems as if every other page is marked with a yellow Post-It note, signifying another photograph by Kenneth Dupee (K.D.) Swan. “When we were done with these, then we moved on to the other binders in the archives downstairs, just to double-check.”

Burbank and her colleague, Gloria Weisgerber, a public affairs specialist, ended up spending days compiling hundreds of historical outdoor photographs by Swan—both admit there are probably hundreds more—to consider for inclusion in the Forest Service’s traveling exhibit, Splendid Was The Trail: Photographs of the National Forests by K.D. Swan, currently on display in Missoula. The fact that Burbank and Weisgerber initiated the dirty work for the exhibit, flipping through binders at a corner desk and burrowing through the basement archives, is the perfect juxtaposition to Swan’s work: meticulously composed, grand Northwestern landscapes shot between 1911 and 1942, often depicting outdoorsmen or agency staff to help promote the organization’s mission and entice the public to support the remote and newly set-aside terrain.

“Part of his job as a member of the Forest Service was to talk to the public about the purpose of the agency and what the Forest Service did, and I think some of this work was used in those talks,” says Weisgerber. “It shows that our employees were out in the field, working on the land, working outdoors, and not just bureaucrats.”

“And it wasn’t just about the agency—it’s that these weren’t just remote, rugged areas you would never see,” adds Paula Nelson, a Forest Service media officer. “You could be swimming in the lake, you could be on the mountains riding horseback. You could be where he was shooting.”

Splendid Was The Trail, which debuted in Great Falls early last year, was organized as part of the Forest Service’s 2005 centennial celebration. At the time of Swan’s tenure at the agency—beginning when the Harvard Forestry School graduate came to Missoula to work as an assistant in 1911, later working in public education and as an official photographer—the agency was still in its infancy and its mission was not well established; it was transitioning from its original purpose of maintaining timber reserves to acting as more of a caretaker of the land. Swan’s work, shot entirely in Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas, captured the beauty and accessibility of the little-recognized public land.

“If I were asked to name my favorite wildlife study I would probably mention a moose picture which I took one Labor Day weekend at a little lake near Elk Summit in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness…,” wrote Swan about one of his signature shots at Hoodoo Lake. “Leaving the car I took my position in a clump of lodgepole pines near the lake shore. An hour passed and nothing happened. I had made up my mind to leave in another five minutes…Just as I was unscrewing the long lens from my Graflex I heard a crackling of branches across the lake and a large bull charged out of the timber…”

The historical context of Swan’s work is matched by his artistry behind the lens. He would hike, ride horseback or drive to different wilderness areas, situate himself with a 30-pound, 5-by-7 Graflex view camera (a photo of Swan in action appears in the exhibit), as well as additional gear, and wait for hours for the perfect light and composition to present itself. The quality of the results was such that Burbank and Weisgerber employed the assistance of Steve Glueckert, curator at the Missoula Art Museum, and Kirby Lambert, curator of art for the Montana Historical Society, among others, to advise them on how to narrow the exhibit down to the current 32 pictures in the traveling display.

“I think the hard choice was certainly what to leave out,” explains Lambert. “He had a really good eye and his images are romantic—like the cowboys on their horses near a beautiful mountain lake. I think that’s something that’s a Western archetype and still speaks to people.”

Glueckert sees the same appeal of Swan’s work, how he not only thoroughly captured a specific time and place, but did so in a context where few others bothered.

“In other government endeavors, when there’s been the choice to not involve artists, we’ve regretted it—like the Lewis and Clark expedition,” says Glueckert. “Clark chose not to have an artist, and I think the expedition suffered because of that choice. Then, [naturalist Prince Alexander Philipp] Maximilian and [Swiss-born artist Karl] Boder came out 30 years later and some remarkable work came out of that. So, if you think that in 1911 someone had the foresight to include photography, that just makes the work that much more remarkable.”

Splendid Was The Trail: Photographs of the National Forests by K.D. Swan is on display through April 28, at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Elk Country Visitor Center. The center, located at 5705 Grant Creek Road, is open 8 AM to 5 PM Monday through Friday, and 10 AM to 5 PM Saturday. Free.

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