If you're like me, every now and then you eagerly throw on a pair of shorts, strap on running shoes and hit the pavement for a little recreational jog. Eagerly, that is, until the second mile, when your screaming right knee makes the act of extending your legs about as pleasurable as poking out your own eye with a fork. Fortunately, a lot of Missoulians either have better knees or they're better at running through the pain, because Missoula is the place for runners, as Neil Chaput de Saintonge's exhibit Photo Finish illustrates.
Standing in the middle of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography Gallery, surrounded by three walls lined with prints of contestants contesting, spectators spectating and runners running, Photo Finish feels more like a starting line. My lungs expand, my calves tense, I can practically hear the masses cheering. I'm waiting for the crowd to leap from the wall, for the starter pistol to fire.
What surprises me most is how something as pedestrian as images of random people participating in a sportone that always leaves me as envious as a fenced-in puppy watching coyotescan be so intriguing. Perhaps it's envy that pins me to the portion of the exhibit reserved for photos of the famed Missoula Marathon. Look at those faces: the concentration, determination, pain, exultation. See those fists pumping the air, the goofy costumes, the kids and the runners with disabilities? They're your neighbors and your children. The skinny dudes racing in their underwear may have bagged your last six-pack at the Orange Street Food Farm.
"That one's Jeanne Chaput de Saintonge," RMSP receptionist Melanie Wright tells me during my first visit, pointing out a photo of Neil's wife and business partner, co-owner of RMSP, from the 2010 Missoula Marathon. In the photo, Jeanne smiles as a ribbon is placed around her neck. There's a story in every photo. The tow-headed child on his knees at the starting line, the throng of runners leaning into a flurry of snow, the couple holding hands and laughing mid-stride. The stories are in the moments beyond the frozen sprint, around the next corner, after the crowd cheers. Which is why it comes as no surprise when Neil tells me that, while people know him from his years studying under Ansel Adams, landscape photography isn't his great passion. "I love telling stories," he says. "Documentary photography is my favorite."
Like me, Neil wishes he could run, but a slight lung condition limits him to race walking. His 19-year-old son, Forest Chaput de Saintonge, is a serious runner though. Forest ran all four years at Hellgate High School, and now at UM. For Neil, it was an easy leap from shooting high school meets to volunteering his lens during Run Wild Missoula races. "What a wonderful group," he says, adding that his appreciation for it was the motivation for Photo Finish. "This show publicizes Run Wild's work, emphasizes what's going on in this run-happy city," he says. And what better way to support a community you love than to give the photos away to anyone who chooses to claim his or her portrait?
Walking through Photo Finish, it's easy to feel like you're a part of something. I'm almost as much a participant here in the RMSP gallery as I'd have been at any of the races. Fire the pistol, I want to shout. I'm ready.
Photo Finish continues through April at the RMSP Gallery, 216 N. Higgins Ave. Mon.–Fri. from 8 AM to 5 PM.