Three years ago, Terry Abell approached local photographer Bret Bouda with a box of slides. The photographs had been unearthed while Abell was going through the estate of his good friend James R. Bakke, a noted local painter and longtime Whitefish resident who passed away in 2013.
Abell had been cleaning out Bakke’s property when he found the images of Glacier National Park, daily life in the Flathead Valley and even a visit by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Not knowing the images’ value, he took them to Bouda so he could take a look. After cracking open the box and holding the square slides up to the light, Bouda realized they had discovered something special.
“When I first saw these images, I knew we had found a treasure,” Bouda said.
Now that treasure is on display at The Museum at Central School in Kalispell.
Bakke grew up on Montana’s plains before moving to Whitefish in 1947 spending the next three decades working for the railroad. In his spare time, he painted landscapes in a style similar to Vincent van Gogh, the great Dutch post-Impressionistic painter. Bakke’s work was put on the map in 2011 when Donna Hopkins published a book of his work called “James R. Bakke Montana Artist.”
While Bakke was known to take photos to inspire his paintings, no one knew just how rich his photography portfolio was, Bouda said. The box of images Abell brought to Bouda three years ago included landscapes from Glacier Park, portraits of Bakke’s co-workers on the Great Northern Railway and artistic still-life photos. Most of the images were taken between the 1950s and 1970s, offering a rare glimpse of life in Northwest Montana at the time. Jacob Thomas, executive director of The Museum at Central School, said the images are an invaluable record of the region’s history. The photos’ content ranges from annual events like the Whitefish Winter Carnival to the aftermath of the devastating 1964 flood.
“Bakke did an amazing job of capturing a moment in time,” Thomas said. “What really draws me to these images are that they are in full color.”
Bouda spent hundreds of hours scanning the images and printing the best ones for display. Prints of some photos are for sale, and part of the proceeds will go toward the museum. Bouda said the project was a labor of love and that he hopes it inspires locals to find their own historic images deep in the attic or basement.
“I think everyone will find a photo in this collection that they connect with, either artistically, historically or personally,” Thomas said.
Along with Bakke’s photos, The Museum at Central School has also borrowed some of his paintings that are currently held by the Stumptown Historical Society. Bouda said having the photos and paintings together will give viewers a chance to see how Montana’s landscapes and people inspired Bakke’s artistic process.
The exhibit of Bakke’s photos will be on display at The Museum at Central School through the middle of 2018. Bouda said he hopes to eventually turn Bakke’s photo collection into a book so that more people can appreciate his work.
“In my opinion, James R. Bakke was among the best photographers this valley ever had,” he said.