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She’s funny, frank and enfolded in a devoted circle of friends.

Kristi Hager paints nudes and camouflage rabbits and, lately, landscapes. She has called the Berkeley Pit in Butte her muse.

She'll stand before an audience in the Wilma Theater and tell the darnedest stories.

And Hager will descend into a nuclear missile silo deep beneath the Montana prairie, put a black hood over her head and do her most enduring work.

"I've really had to face my mortality in these last six months," said Hager, who was diagnosed with cancer in June and went immediately into surgery and chemotherapy. "It is a great comfort to know that I have over 600 photographs in the Library of Congress."

Since 1992, Hager the artist has photographed stark, unmoving structures — a lot of old bridges but also homesteads, houses, aircraft beacons and the Milltown Dam and power plant before they disappeared.

Hager’s work is through two federal preservation programs, the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) and the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER).

Her instrument: A large-format camera that harkens back to the 1880s, weighing close to 25 pounds. It produces standardized black-and-white, 4-by-5-inch photos taken under strict guidelines.

“The point of the 4-by-5 view camera is that the Library of Congress has a standard of archival stability that’s only met by black-and-white film,” Hager said. “Digital images are not as stable as black-and-white film.”

It’s a niche vocation that has few practitioners and receives little recognition.

“I have friends who have no idea I do photography,” Hager said.

They should be finding out soon.

On Jan. 18, Hager will be at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena for the State Historic Preservation Office’s every-other-year ceremony, where she’ll receive SHPO’s award for outstanding achievement in historic preservation.

“Her dedication to her profession and her contribution to historic preservation has resulted in a unique record of Montana historic properties that no longer exist,” says the announcement on the Montana Historical Society’s website.

Hager was born and raised in the Wilmington area of northern Delaware and, while always a painter, received her degree in architecture from the University of Pennsylvania.

“You learn what a soffit is, all the elevations and details,” she said. “I love architecture.”

But her first love is drawing and painting, and she made her way west to the University of Wisconsin to earn a master's of fine arts. Hager introduced herself to the 4-by-5 camera when she began photographing her own artwork.

She was first in Missoula in 1977 when she taught photography and printmaking at the University of Montana. Later she taught at Sacramento State and Santa Clara University in California before landing back in Montana for good in the mid-1980s.

Her first job was drafting for Pegasus Gold Corp. in Butte, which overlooked Berkeley Pit and shared building space with Renewable Technologies Inc., a historical preservation consulting firm. In 1992, RTI lost its photographer.

“I knew how to use one of these cameras, so I said, 'I can do that,'” Hager said. “I knew the language of architecture, so I knew what they were talking about.”

Next thing she knew she was off to South Dakota, where she photographically documented three buildings at the Yankton State Hospital.

A couple of years later Hager was at Holter Dam near Helena, documenting its historic district, and then at other dams in the Montana Power Co. system. The painter and draftswoman had caught the camera bug.

“I really liked it,” Hager said. “This work is as straight of photography as you can get. It's a discipline that I enjoy. It satisfies a different part of my brain."

Hager moved to Missoula in 1996 and started Light Room Photography in her home on East Spruce Street.

Her first local project was the Orange Street Bridge and Milwaukee Road overpass in 1999. In 2001 she documented the Point of Rocks segment of the Mullan Road near Alberton for Jon Axline, historian for the Montana Department of Transportation. Hager later provided photos of 45 bridges for Axline’s 2005 book, “Conveniences Sorely Needed: Montana’s Historic Highway Bridges, 1860-1956.”

Large-format photography isn’t of the point-and-click variety. Think L.A. Huffman of Miles City on the open range in the 1880s and, close to Hager’s heart, Evelyn Cameron shooting pioneer life in eastern Montana in the early 1900s.

“She’s like my favorite photographer,” Hager said of Cameron. “Because I handle a large camera and she worked with a 5-by-7 camera, so even bigger, I had some sense of what it meant for her to strap that camera on her horse with this big old tripod and go out there and take all day and come back with six photographs.”

Hager's infatuation turned into a contract with Farcountry Press to write the text and captions for the 2007 publication “Evelyn Cameron: Montana’s Frontier Photographer.”

She said it takes her about half an hour to set up a shot, choosing the right site and angle to place the big camera, loading the film, getting a hand-held meter reading, setting shutter speed and f-stop, cocking the trigger and pulling out the starch light. Finally she's ready to don the black hood.

“You don’t take 10 or 20 exposures, so you want to make sure this is the shot you want,” she said. 

Library of Congress standards are rigid, with a manual of rules and regulations some 40 pages thick. Only 12 to 15 negatives of, say, the deck, railing and substructure of an endangered bridge go back to Washington, D.C. It often takes Hager at least a full day to produce them.

“You have requirements, but within those requirements I get to make aesthetic decisions,” she said. “I have to get details of the pin joints and if there are any plaques, so some of it is just really rudimentary. They want as much information as possible.

“But they do say in their manual that they want an aesthetic component. I feel like it’s my job to make it as beautiful as it is, but I also don’t try to put spin on it.”

The missile silo shoot was a one-and-off gig in the Conrad area in 2007 — two weeks, five alert facilities, and a basket of stories of working around military protocol.

She’s weaved that experience into an unpublished short story. Hager got into writing in the late 1990s, when the oil paint she used began making her sick.

“Too much exposure to mineral spirits,” she said.

She found a solution in acrylics, but during the interlude took to writing stories, often in a conversational voice. That morphed into a series of monologues, and  Hager has performed at the Brunswick Gallery and at Marc Moss’ Tells Us Something events at the Top Hat and Wilma.

It's a different art form altogether, but for Hager it somehow complements her art and camera crafts.

“I can’t quite explain it,” she said. “They seem related to me but I realize from the outside they look pretty disparate.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian