The Life of C. Owen Smithers

Owen Smithers, Sr., or “Smigs” as he became known, was one of Montana’s most prestigious professional photographers. For more than 50 years, he used his camera to document Montana’s history as it happened. The C. Owen Smithers Photograph Collection informs on Butte’s environment, industry, labor, women, military, and is unparalleled in its scope.

Smithers’ parents came to Montana in covered wagons in the 1880s and settled in the area now known as Kalispell. C. Owen Smithers was born in 1893. He grew up in Kalispell where he began learning the art of photography and use of the dark room while working in his father’s drug store.  In 1914, he became one of the first press photography students at the University of Montana’s new School of Journalism.

Smithers’ military service began when he served with the Montana Volunteers in the Mexican Border Incident of 1916. He went on to serve during World War I as a mess sergeant under General Pershing in France. He returned to active duty during World War II, when he served as the Army Signal Corps Photography Chief based out of New York City and was in charge of all Army Photography Section in New York, New Jersey, and Delaware.smithers

Smithers first came to Butte in 1921 after his service in the First World War. He first worked as Chief Photographer for the Anaconda Standard from 1921 to 1923, putting his craft to work on the streets and in the mine yards of Butte, Montana, capturing the ever-changing landscape of the dynamic city. From 1923 to 1924, Smithers partnered with both Frank Ward and Tom Manning before opening his own photography studio in 1926. From the 1930s until his retirement from the photography business in 1972, Smithers photographed every President of the United States from Herbert Hoover to Richard Nixon, many when they visited Butte, as well as many Presidential candidates who did not make it to the White House.

In addition to being a photojournalist, Smithers was a collector of images of Butte and Montana, amassing an impressive collection spanning a period from the 1860s to the 1970s. These images document the development of early mining towns in the West, including the rise of Butte, Montana from a mining camp to a cosmopolitan city. They also capture the economic hardships felt during the time of the Great Depression. Smithers documented nearly every mining activity, fire, crime, major visitor, and everyday life in Butte from 1921 to 1972. He was active in the American Legion, the Bagdad Shrine Temple, the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, the Butte Press Club, and the Kiwanis Club—all of which gave him a personal role in the community. His son, C. Owen Smithers, Jr., joined him in the photography business and continued his legacy in Butte, Montana.

Smithers, Sr. had a dream of publishing a photographic history of Montana. To this end, he acquired hundreds of photographs from around Montana taken by his forerunners, including Frank Ward, N.A. Forsyth, and others. These are the images that extend the range of the collection back to the 1860s and include hundreds of photographs of Montana’s early towns, events, and people.

Smithers’ vision was realized three years after his death in 1976 with the release of Butte’s Memory Book, written by Don James, which featured Smithers’ iconic photographs. The introduction of the book by Frank P. Quinn, former editor of The Montana Standard, describes Smithers, Sr. as the ‘Photographer Historian” of Butte and the Treasure State, and his studio as “a focal point for writers from all parts of the United States and many foreign countries. They sought and received historical prints to illustrate writings in their particular fields.” A book review of Butte’s Memory Book describes it in the following way: “…the heart of the book is its people and somehow Smithers captured the expression, the moods, and the very spirit of them all, from the historic luminaries to the street characters…the people of Butte, those lively souls whose forebears gave the city its heart years ago, must have infinite pride in the publication.”


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