A photographer searches for the American dream in Montana

In 2005photographer Christopher Churchill visited a Hutterite colony on the Montana Hi-Line, a sparsely populated prairie along the Canadian border. He traveled the United States for a project on faith, hoping to find common ground between different beliefs. But as he spent time in the small religious community surrounded by endless fields of wheat and railroad tracks that once formed the main line of the Great Northern Railway, he soon became interested in another American belief system: capitalism. Churchill was impressed by the way trade itself had shaped this isolated landscape – and also by how the colony, where members live and work together and share the proceeds of their labor, offered a different view of prosperity.

2 photos: woman in shorts flanked by 2 shirtless men in front of a boxing ring;  Boy with a skateboard in the field with mountains in the far background
Black and white photo of a boy riding a bicycle in front of a building
Top: A church in Inverness, population 77, flanked by power lines and grain bins. middle left: Near railroad tracks in Butte, Montana, Churchill tripped over a bare-knuckle boxing match. middle right: A boy holds a longboard in Ennis, a town founded during the Montana Gold Rush and now a gateway for tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park. bottom: A Hutterite boy in Gildford.

The experience led Churchill to reflect on how the lives of individuals intersect with broader economic forces. It became the inspiration for a new project centered on the “American Dream” and brought it back to Montana last summer. The resulting photographs, some in black and white, some in color, show traces of American industry, class segregation, and westward expansion: high-tension power lines interrupt the horizon, the glint of a belt buckle, the wind blowing through a reservation town. But the focus is on the people whom Churchill encountered briefly on his journey through the state.

Top left: A woman sits on her porch in Anaconda, just down the street from the great city library – a gift from Phoebe Hearst, whose husband invested in the copper industry that drove entrepreneurs into the state until the mines went bust. Top right: Two brothers lean against a pickup truck at the Last Chance Stampede and Fair in Helena before heading to the 4-H cattle sale there. Bottom left: A young father holds his baby on Blackfeet Reservation. Bottom right: A Hutterites in Gildford.

There is something precarious about these images, but also defiant. A toughness and a tenderness. Churchill’s subjects look straight into the camera, their facial expressions begging for interpretation. This incomprehensibility offers its own revelation: after all, a dream is a matter of one’s own perception. Hutterite children bounce on a trampoline, their long skirts soaring against the open sky. The girl in the middle seems to be smiling, floating in the air. It’s impossible to know if it’s going up or down.

Color photograph of a vast, open, orange-yellow field strewn with hay bales, with low mountains in a hazy distance
Hay bales near Great Falls, Montana

This article appears in the March 2023 print edition and is entitled “Views of Montana.”

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