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The Next Generation In The Study Of Custer's Last Stand

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Interview -- Dr. James Brust

How did you become interested in the Little Bighorn story?

J. B.   I casually picked up a book on the Little Bighorn back in the early 1970s.  A short time after that I found a remainder copy of Graham's The Custer Myth in a book store, which I bought and read.  That one really intrigued me, so I began to look for other books on the Little Bighorn battle.  Eventually I met Dick Upton, who supplied me with a never-ending stream of LBH volumes.

Your profession is in the medical field. How did you become interested in photography and/or the collection of rare photos?

J. B.  I actually began with 19th century American historical prints --- I've collected original Currier & Ives lithographs for over 30 years, and do research and writing in that field as well.  I also took up amateur photography, so it was only natural that I'd eventually develop an interest in 19th century photographs.  All of these activities are strictly hobbies and have nothing to do with my "day job," but they provide a nice break from the rigors of full time medical practice.

What is your most treasured find regarding photographs and why?

J. B.   The most important photo-find is the July 1877 view of the Little Bighorn battlefield by John H. Fouch, which is the earliest known photograph of the battlefield, and which had gone undiscovered for 113 years until I had the good fortunate to acquire it in 1990.

How did the concept of the book, Where Custer Fell, come about?

J. B.  After the discovery of the Fouch photograph, and its eventual publication in "Greasy Grass", I became interested in other early photos of the battlefield.  Looking at one of the views from D.F. Barry's set of photos of the 10th anniversary observance in 1886, I noticed the remnants of a grave on Custer Hill.  I wanted to see if that grave site correlated to any of the present markers on Last Stand Hill, and the only way to do that was to set up a precise modern comparison photo.  Doug McChristian, then battlefield historian, gave me permission to do so in the Fall of 1992, and worked with me to create those first few then-and-now shots.  While the grave in the Barry view did not correlate to anything in the modern landscape, we reshot a few other historical photos and made some interesting observations.  As we worked, Doug mentioned that a number of accomplished Custer battle historians had thought of re-shooting old battlefield views, but none had ever actually launched such a project.  I decided I would.

How long did you and the authors work on the book?

J. B.  Starting with that 1992 visit, I returned to the battlefield every autumn through 2001 to re-shoot historical photos.  Brian Pohanka joined me in 1994, and Sandy Barnard signed on in 1995.  Late each September we'd go up to Montana and attempt to make modern comparison photos of any newly discovered vintage views that our research had brought to light over the preceding year.  Then these last four years were spent writing the book. 

Was there a specific purpose for the book that you all shared?

J. B.   There were several purposes.  We learned a lot by walking the battlefield and creating the modern comparison photos.  Recreating a view requires you to look at both the early photo and the modern landscape much more closely than you ordinarily would.  And as we worked, we developed an admiration for the photographers who created these images under conditions of great hardship and danger, and realized the historical value of these views they had produced.  The purpose of this book was to share the importance of these photos as historical documents, and to focus attention on the photographers who created them.  Historical photographs tend to be under-studied and under appreciated by historians.  In some small way we'd like to remedy that.

What was the process you all followed - research, finding old photos of LBH, and taking the comparison photos? How did you all divide the work, or did you? Was Brian the only one to focus on writing the narrative of the battle?

J. B. This was truly a collaborative effort.  I may have focused more on the photo history, while Sandy and Brian looked more at the battle history, but all three of us were involved in all phases of this book, and each of us read and critiqued what each other author created.  When it came time to decide which photos to include, we sat down together around my dining room table in San Pedro.  Potential readers will be pleased to know, though, that the battle history presented in this book was heavily influenced by Brian Pohanka.

How did you all know that you had finally reached the end of the project - or is it over?

J. B.   In my mind, it is not over, and despite the tragic loss of Brian, Sandy and I hope to go out there and re-shoot photos again, and I've certainly not stopped gathering historical images to recreate.  But by 2001 we had reached a point where we had so much good stuff to share that we knew we had to go ahead with a book.

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