Brothers documented local history in pictures

By NOAH BOSTROM/Montana State News

“Art does not flow in the veins but through the soul” said Man Ray.  Although many would not argue with the famous photographer, the Schlechten family begs the argument to be made. That the two brothers, Albert and Alfred Schlechten, and son “Chris” were all blessed with such technical photographic ability and vision was unique.

“Montana was blessed to have such photographers recording its history,” says Steve Jacson, curator at the Museum of the Rockies, “Not to mention their fabulous skill and ingenuity.”

The Schlechten brothers moved to Bozeman in 1900 and quickly took over Grant and Tippet photography, the only photography business in Bozeman, and dubbed it the Schlechten Brothers Studio. They then began working in landscapes, photojournalism, commercial work and portraiture.  If the customer wanted a specific style, they could do it or at least try.

According to the Historical Society website, the Schlechtens “were considered the best photographers in Gallatin Valley or even all southwest Montana.” Among their greatest achievements were the postcards displaying landscapes which they sold to tourists coming through Yellowstone Park.

After operating the studio together for 10 years, the brothers each opened their own studios downtown.  To this day the brother’s postcards sell in the park. “It gives visitors a great look at the history of the park,” said Yellowstone gift shop worker Rachel Pike.

Albert, the older of the brothers, specialized in large format 11-inch-by-14-inch landscape photography. He frequented the Yellowstone Park and the Yellowstone River drainage developing an extensive landscape series on the park and of the Gallatin and Paradise Valleys.

Discontented with the city life and job, Albert sold his studio in 1922 and went into wheat farming.  Several years later, his farm failed due to the drought from the Dust Bowl. In 1929, he opened a studio in Anaconda called Central Studio, which he operated until his retirement in 1946. His collection of landscapes ranged around 200 plates – an extremely vast collection.

Alfred quickly settled into the family lifestyle in Bozeman.  His work was mainly with studio and commercial work.  Many shops downtown had him come in to document their space and help promote business.  His work documenting downtown Bozeman is of historical significance and opened the doors for photography as a business.  Alfred continued to work in Bozeman until his retirement in the 1940’s when his son Alfred “Chris” Schlechten took over the family business.

With photography still in the early stages of developing a standard and easy process, logical knowledge and scientific intelligence was key in the successful production of images.  These photographers were, “chemists, engineers, mountaineers and pioneers in their own right,” says the Museum of the Rockies’ Jacson.

Chris, son of Alfred Schlechten, learned the techniques of studio portraiture from his father and landscape photography from his uncle Albert.  His technical skill in the lab increased as he began processing some of his father and uncle’s work.

Chris then went on to attend Montana State College (now Montana State University).  Chis and several friends created a now infamous “spoof” college annual in 1933.  The humorous publication included several images of “Clarence Mjork” the “class playboy” superimposed onto nearly every club photo in ridiculous places.

The publication also featured prank photos of clubs and organizations. These photos replaced the basketball team with a row of Butterfinger candy bars and posed students in humorous and unexpected ways.  A photo showing a collection of horses’ hind ends was identified as some of Rivenes’ fraternity brothers.  The publication got those responsible for it temporarily expelled and the few surviving copies are now sought after collector items.

After graduating in the 1930s, Chis started a photography business in West Yellowstone, Mont., and photographed extensively in Yellowstone National Park. He focused heavily on landscapes, but also did part time tourist portraiture. He took over the family photography studio in Bozeman in the 1940s. Chris soon established a reputation for his portraiture, winning several awards from the Professional Photographers of America.

Chris also enjoyed teaching others about photography.  His studio in Bozeman became a training ground for young photographers eager to learn his techniques. “His work helped inspire the now famous MSU Photography program,” according to Dan Wise.

After Chris Schlechten’s death in 1979, the family donated the entire 10,000-image collection to the Museum of the Rockies with more than 175 11-inch-by-14-inch negatives. “The Schlechten family’s work is one of our best records of Bozeman history,” says Jacson.

– Edited by Ben Havens

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