Master of disaster 

Stan Healy documents the old, weird Missoula

It’s sometimes hard to conceive of the past happening in color when we see so much of it literally only in black and white. It sounds really precious and vapid to say that, but it’s true. Black and white provides an aesthetic and cognitive cushion for all kinds of horribleness. Emaciated bodies being bulldozed into pits on 1945 newsreels don’t look real. But you know they are. Likewise, the dark fluid splattered on the pavement around a shooting victim in a Weegee photograph signifies blood, but it doesn’t have quite the same visceral impact that the same lifeless puddle would have in vivid color circa 2003. It’s as though the mental effort of extrapolating color values from the range of grays somehow excuses the viewer from making the most unpleasant realizations—e.g., oh God, that’s actually someone’s blood, and lots of it, too.

Longtime Daily Missoulian photographer Stan Healy took a lot of black and white crime and accident scene photos around town during the ’40s and ’50s, but there’s barely a spot of blood in the exhibit of his work currently on display at the Art Museum. The power of Healy’s work lies primarily in what you don’t see but know is there, lying under a decorously draped blanket or just through a door, past a group of detectives milling in a cordoned-off parking lot. Exhibit literature prominently mentions the word “voyeuristic” in describing Healy’s style—which is hardly surprising, given that homicide scenes and car accidents have always attracted news photographers under legitimate pretenses as well as throngs of gawkers—but it’s important to make the distinction between voyeuristic and invasive. Healy’s photographs are not invasive, hardly the stuff of sordid murder-cam Web sites or “America’s Goriest Crime Scenes”-type cable TV shows. Part of Healy’s restraint can probably be attributed to contemporary tastes and journalistic decorum (and the amount of access law enforcement agents were willing to grant him), but his photographs still suggest far more than they actually show. A series of six undated gelatin silver prints of a double-murder investigation depict evidence, suspect and investigators, and that’s it. A 1959 photo titled “Boy Goes Off Lolo Grade” shows a young (judging from both the title and the canvas sneakers sticking poignantly into the foreground) accident victim sprawled across the front seat and covered with a blanket, but again—not a drop of blood.

Stan Healy was born in Missoula in 1918 and went through Whittier Elementary School and Missoula County High School before graduating from the University of Montana with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1941. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, precursor to the Air Force, and was stationed at Sheppard Field in San Antonio, Texas. Upon his discharge in 1945, he immediately went to work for the Daily Missoulian and performed a number of different jobs there under the title of staff photographer. Healy stayed with the Missoulian for some 17 years, even weathering a 1961 dispute with the paper’s publisher over rights to his photographs (he won and retained full rights).

After leaving the Missoulian in 1962, Healy spent several years freelancing around the country, taking photographs of Pittsburgh steelworkers and a wide range of other topics, and selling much of what he took to papers around the Northwest. On returning to Missoula, he ran for city councilman and served the Northside precinct from 1966 until 1983, when he lost a bid for re-election. In the interval, Healy suffered a heart attack in 1979 and moved from the house he’d lived in for 62 years to a nursing home. He died of cancer in 1996.

The majority of photos in the exhibit are undated—and in many cases, a little archival research probably would have turned up a date—but the lack of specific times and places actually enhances the pleasure of peering back into Missoula’s past. Photos from the Giger-Garrity murder investigation are pretty much what you’d expect from the rough ’40s time frame: lots of detectives in pearl-gray suits and overcoats, fedoras and horn-rimmed glasses loitering with hands in pockets, looking very period noir. The quality of these photos really stands out, too. You don’t often get bottomless blacks in news photography anymore like you do in the robe of the priest posing with a recently de-crucified Jesus while a second Christ lies supine on the floor, awaiting transport to safer digs after a church fire.

The exhibit isn’t all fire and murder, though. One print shows a child caught mid-ouch while receiving a polio shot. A cardinal visiting St. Ignatius is flanked by a line of horse-mounted men and women wearing native dress. Another man holds up conjoined cucumbers. There’s a Shriners parade with a kid in a tiger mask and hypodermic kit fastened to his head, holding a placard that reads “Furry with a syringe on top,” a pun that maybe one out of 500 kids would understand today.

One print depicting dancers in blackface and wearing knotted handkerchiefs on their heads will probably raise some eyebrows, and so it should: Nostalgia should be a little hurtful, too. Healy’s photographs capture many moods in his subjects—harried, as with marchers in a 1966 peace rally, or resolute, as with a family posing near the charred remains of their home—and so many moods of Missoula past as well. It isn’t always pretty, but that’s the news.

Stan Healy: Artist’s Eye is on view through September 20 at the Art Museum of Missoula.

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