Take an intimate visual dive into a foundational part of Montana’s past through local photographer Chris Chapman’s project, “Bonner Mill: The Last Photographs.”
The project explores the insides and exteriors of the historic Bonner Mill’s infrastructure, capturing the essence of a fading era. Six of the images from the project will be on display at the Zootown Arts Community Center for the month of March, offering gallery-goers a unique glimpse into quintessential Montana history.
Chapman began photographing for the project in 2012, following the mill’s recent closure at the time. When the mill was shuttered and was sold, Chapman had connections to the property’s new owners and they offered him a tour and access to the buildings.
That began a two-week exploration of the mill property and its structures, many of which were set to be deconstructed.
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“It wasn’t something I sought out necessarily,” Chapman said. “But it’s something they just sort of handed to me.”
The mill opened in 1886 and began producing lumber for construction and support beams for mines, including the ones in Butte. In its heyday, it was the biggest mill from the West Coast to Wisconsin, according to the Bonner Milltown History Center and Museum’s website.
In the almost century and a half that the mill was in operation, it became more than just a business. It became the thriving community and company town that is now Bonner, complete with a post office, school and the highfalutin Margaret Hotel.
While the mill itself was no longer operational in 2012, the remnants of the era were apparent in Chapman’s explorations and photographs.
Some of Chapman’s images have an almost ghost-town feel in how they document the things left behind by mill workers. The majority of the images are black and white, which helps to carry that desolate sensibility throughout the entire body of work.
“It was interesting seeing the places where people signed the walls, where people made their own mark,” Chapman said. “There’s the little personal touches everywhere.”
Dilapidated mill structures in various states of disarray and deconstruction might not seem like the most photogenic subject matter for an artistic project. But Chapman’s eye for beauty in things mundane and overlooked creates images that breathe new life into the aging mill. Combined with Chapman’s skill for composition and use of natural light, the photographs are nothing short of captivating.
Going into the project, Chapman’s goals were not just to document the mill and its infrastructure. Rather, he sought to juxtapose something so particular to humans against the nature that surrounds it.
“It’s like finding things that humans have built for this project in nature,” Chapman said.
On the other end of that spectrum, Chapman said it was surprising to see the extremes of what humans could build and do.
“It just struck me of, like, what a hazardous place it must have been to work,” Chapman said. “Like a thousand and one ways to get maimed or die or get sucked into a piece of machinery.”
Some of Chapman’s images that will be on display, depict structures that no longer exist, or exist in a less favorable state these days. From an archival perspective, Chapman says he hopes the project could someday incorporate other archival works from people who remember the mill in its operational days.
“This [project] is my experience there,” Chapman said. “This stuff only lasts for a generation or two before no one cares.”