montana photographs Tom Harmon, Agate Man

Montana and the West are full of people who carve their own ways, people who are able to turn their passions into lifetimes. Tom Harmon is one of those people. He has been gathering agates along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana for nearly all of his life.

In the late 1960s, Harmon was making a living as an auto mechanic and gathering, grinding, polishing and then selling rocks on the weekends. When he and his wife realized they was making more money working with agates than with engines, they leapt into the rock business and haven’t looked back since.


At his home in Crane, Montana, south of Sidney, Harmon has converted a dairy barn into a workshop where he transforms the rocks he finds along a riverbank into display pieces and jewelry.


A finished agate is cut and polished. This one was cut thin and framed. It is most dramatic when lit from behind.


Agates come in a wide variety of colors and configurations. This one appears to show trees.


Inside his shop, Harmon grinds a stone into what may become a claw shape.


In his basement, Harmon keeps a display of his favorite agates.



Tom Harmon, agate man.

These pictures and more can be found in the current issue of Montana Quarterly.

See these pictures big here, on my website.

montana photographs of Al Swanson, Master Woodworker

20150325134651Al Swanson is a gifted, highly skilled craftsman who uses age-old, hands-on woodworking techniques to make fine furniture at his studio in downtown Helena.




He says this dovetail joint on a bookcase he’s making demonstrates a timeless strength, elegance and beauty. “It’s all done with hand saws and chisels,” he says. “And you can tell by looking at it.”

Swanson is dedicated to his craft, despite the tremendous amounts of hand work that go into each piece he make. He teaches woodworking classes in the shop behind a large glass window in his gallery/studio.

And, like many people who move to Montana as adults, Swanson is an avid fly fisherman.

People would come from around the country to take his classes, but it was hard to send them home with a table or chair, so he needed a product that wasn’t quite so big. When he noticed fishing guides picking up their clients at a nearby hotel, he hit on the idea of a wooden fly box.

Made of quarter-sawn sycamore and tiger maple, these boxes are the result of more than 20 prototypes and hours and hours of thought and work.

20150325151018-EditSwanson has lined up a deal with fly fishing’s retail giant Orvis, and sells boxes in an array of sizes through the Orvis catalogs.

20150325131118See these images big here.

#MontanaPhotographer #MontanaPhotojournalist #Woodworking #Flyfishing #Furniture

montana photographs Bynum Dancing

As the school year winds down, I wanted to share these pictures I made while working with Al Kesselheim up in northern Montana.

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Bynum is pretty small. Twenty kids comprise the entire student body at the Bynum School.

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But every morning for 80 years or more, each and every one of those kids dances.

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Al and I happened to visit when the school was entertaining visitors from nearby Choteau. The dancing is done in an old Methodist Church next door to the school.Montana Photojournalist Bynum School Dancing17

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Susan Luinstra is the head teacher at the school and she’s the energy behind the dancing today. But she says the idea was hatched by her predecessor and mentor, Ira Perkins, who said that no matter what misery a child might be enduring outside of school, a half-hour of dancing would shake off all of the bad. During the Great Depression, Perkins mandated that every Bynum School student would learn to dance and to play a musical instrument or sing.

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Perkins taught at the Bynum School for 50 more years before Mrs. Luinstra took over. She carried on the tradition and never changed the music. Kids dance to old 78 records from the 1930s and learn to waltz, foxtrot and polka.

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“Music and dance are the best things we do,” Mrs. Luinstra says. “I don’t have the data, but I know it in my bones. The arts bring the whole child together. Dance and music exercise different parts of the brain, make connections work better. Students are comfortable with each other here as a direct result.”

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See these on my website.

#MontanaPhotojournalist #Montanaphotographer

More Favorite Things

Not too long ago, I posted some pictures of things that were rich in meaning to me, while not necessarily materially valuable. I’ve put out a call for others to share some of their favorite things (that call is still valid, contact me here). Here’s what came in:

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One friend shared this 25,000-year-old bison skull he found while paddling on the Porcupine River in the Yukon. He says the skull represents a window to an ancient landscape, a window on the evolution of a place, a reminder of our tiny fraction of time here on earth. Holding the skull, he says he can imagine being on that same river and seeing these spectacular creatures.

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That same friend found this pipe on a family expedition to the Kazan River in extreme northeastern Canada. He says the pipe is a window on the past culture and heritage. He says it’s comforting and reassuring to know a robust people lived in that country.  There were births, deaths, happiness, sadness, suffering and prosperity. They saw that same ground, listened to those same rapids. He says it takes his family out of survivor mode and into living mode.

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Another friend brought this dung ball back from central Tanzania in 2005. He said a dung beetle rolled up some elephant waste into a ball and laid her eggs inside. There was a brush fire that washed over the ball, burning the outside. A honey badger then came along and broke the ball open and ate the larvae. “Think about all of the ecology that had to come together for this to happen,” he says. The dung ball reminds him of the bush and is an artifact of a fleeting world — elephants in that area are dying out.

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And he also shared this little basket of rocks that he found on the Ilusi River in the Tanzania bush. He says native fishermen would travel to river from far away — too far to carry weights — and then fashion baskets like this to weigh down their nets. He says the window in which these baskets are being made and used is closing all too rapidly.

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Finally, this double-barreled shotgun isn’t necessarily a fine piece of craftsmanship. It’s owner no longer uses it. But it’s still a cherished treasure. It was a gift to the owner from his now deceased grandfather — the only physical reminder he has of the special relationship they shared. It speaks to their hunting legacy, the special tie between the men of his family.

See Favorite Things on my website.

#Montana Photographer #Fine Art Photograph #Favorite Things.

Montana Governor Tim Babcock photographs

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I just read that former Montana Gov. Tim Babcock has died.

Gov. Babcock was kind enough to spend some time with me three years ago during a personal project I was doing called, “Wisdom.” Gov. Babcock shares his views about 45 seconds into the three-minute video. A full three minutes of the governor’s views can be found here.

Our politics differ, but I found the governor a fair man, gracious and wise. I feel privileged to have spent time with him.

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montana photographs about Tim Cahill’s Near-Death Experience


I remember laughing so hard I cried when I used to read Tim Cahill’s magazine articles as a teenager. He has a way of writing about extreme situations that makes them seem so human. He makes it easy to relate to an adventure the reader may have never even dreamt of.

That continues in the current issue of Montana Quarterly. Tim writes about his own death during a rafting trip down the Grand Canyon. There are no epiphanies, no lights, no choirs. Only an honest account of a real experience of what may be the greatest adventure of all.

I won’t spoil it beyond what I’ve already said. Pick up a copy of the spring issue of Montana Quarterly. There are other great stories inside, but this one alone is worth the cover price.


#MontanaPhotographer #TimCahill #NearDeath

Bigger pictures here.

Montana Editorial Photographs on Guns


“I don’t do anything half-assed,” gun maker Jerry Fisher, above, tells us in his shop outside Bigfork, Montana. Fisher is one of the more celebrated gun makers in the country. He has made custom rifles for 60 years.

Guns are a big thread in the weave of Montana’s history. When Lewis and Clark first set foot into what is now Montana, their guns were essential — perhaps the most important piece of gear they brought. And those that followed in their paths needed guns just as badly. Many of them brought Sharps rifles, renowned for their accuracy.

Guns are still big in Montana. And in addition to Jerry Fisher’s one-man operation in Bigfork, the C. Sharps Arms Co. in Big Timber still makes those famous rifles from the 19th century.


Don Franklin works for C. Sharps, precisely fitting metal receivers into walnut stocks. Sharps owner John Schoffstall says the exceptional fit and meticulous craftsmanship that goes into each gun is why Sharps rifles are so renowned.



Quality materials are another reason. These blanks of solid walnut, used for rifle stocks, can run thousands of dollars.


The Sharps factory uses computer-driven cutters to precisely machine metal parts for its rifles.


Once finished, Sharps rifles like this one can fetch tens of thousands of dollars.


Still, owner John Schoffstall says his company is a labor of love more than a business. “I took a perfectly good hobby and ruined it,” he says.


The gun business in Montana is going well enough that Fred Zeglin, above, has a gun smithing and repair curriculum up and running at Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell.


“Most of the gun trade in Montana these days is either for sport or collectors,” says Tim Crawford in Bozeman. Crawford says assault weapons aren’t what is being made here.


Crawford holds the rifle made for him by Jerry Fisher.

More here.

#MontanaPhotographer #Guns #GunSmith #GunCollecting #Rifle


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