March 21, 2019

“A Montanan Through and Through”: The Photographic Legacy of Barbara Van Cleve

by Molly Kruckenberg, MHS Research Center Manager

Throughout her long career, renowned photographer and Montana native Barbara Van Cleve has captured the spirit of the west through her photographs.  Deemed a “Treasured Montana Artist,” Van Cleve has documented Montana and western ranch life from the mid-twentieth century through today.  Her photographs, described by B. Byron Price as having “left a trail deep and plain over open range,” capture distinctly Montana and western images. 

Barbara Van Cleve’s heritage is steeped in Montana.  Her family’s ranch, the Lazy K Bar, was founded in 1880 on the slopes of the Crazy Mountains.  As a photographer, she has held a camera since she was 11 years old.  Her youthful interest in photography grew into a lifelong commitment.  Ranch work also began early for Barbara.  Barely six, she could be found helping at the corrals or sitting astride a horse.  Ever since she has documented the “true grit” and beauty of her experiences on ranches in the West.

Following an academic career in Chicago, Barbara moved to New Mexico to pursue her photography.  She has since returned to her hometown of Big Timber, Montana, where she continues her photography work today.

Van Cleve has offered her collection of more than 10,000 negatives and prints, comprising her life’s work, to the Montana Historical Society.  As a body, the collection records the land and sky, people and animals that have been a part of her life as well as modern western history.  Stating, “I am deeply pleased that photography students, scholars and historians of the West will have access to my work,” Van Cleve acknowledged her pleasure that her “work will come home to stay in my heartland, Montana.”

Van Cleve has generously agreed to offer her collection to the Montana Historical Society for $250,000.  In addition, she has agreed to donate her personal collection of cameras and family materials.  If you are interested in helping the Montana Historical Society preserve and protect this significant Montana history resource, please contact Director Bruce Whittenberg at or 406-444-5485.