For two women with cameras — one famous, one known only in eastern Montana — the frontier was a photography career.
The West had come to her.
Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show arrived in New York City for a series of performances in 1898, and Gertrude Käsebier was watching as actors of the troupe — including Sioux Indians from the Great Plains — paraded past her Fifth Avenue studio. The spectacle drew many; but it’s quite possible that Käsebier, a child of the West then building a reputation as perhaps the foremost portrait photographer in America, saw what no one else saw behind the costumes and regalia: people. After all, the Iowa-born Käsebier had met many American Indians, minus the show finery, while growing up in Colorado.
As scholar Michelle Delaney notes, soon after Buffalo Bill Cody’s troupe arrived, Käsebier wrote Cody a note suggesting that she, as an old friend of the Sioux, would welcome the chance to photograph some of them. When Cody agreed, she arranged to receive her guests — nine Sioux men, more than twice as many as she had anticipated — for tea at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 24. This new series of portraits of American Indians would become, Delaney writes, some of the most highly regarded work of Käsebier’s career, “simple, thought-provoking, modern portraits of individuals involved in a cultural transition.”
Amos Little, Chief Iron Tail
The timing is significant. Photographer and ethnographer Edward S. Curtis had made his first portrait of an American Indian in 1895 and would begin his vast project to photograph and document The North American Indian in 1906.
But the portrait photographer and the ethnologist approached their Indian subjects completely differently. In her fine book about Käsebier, biographer Barbara L. Michaels suggests that Käsebier was more interested in portraying individuals and what their faces could express rather than showing tribal customs and costumes,
as Curtis would do so well. “Curtis obliterated evidence of white culture and outfitted his subjects to make them look more ‘Indian’ — sometimes even putting them in an alien tribe’s garb,” Michaels writes. “Käsebier did the opposite, removing genuine ceremonial accessories to reach her idea of Indian authenticity.”
Arguably, this is what made, for example, Käsebier’s portrait of Iron Tail so powerful. He sits before the camera without headdress or other finery — “without barriers,” Delaney notes in her account of Käsebier’s Wild West show Indian portraits.
The portraits of performers and their family members traveling with the Wild West show, more than 40 in all, are the largest segment of Käsebier’s portrait work with American Indians. The other significant part of her work with American Indians includes nine known portraits of Zitkala-Ša, or Red Bird — also known to history as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, the influential Yankton Sioux writer, musician, teller of folk tales, and lobbyist on Indian issues.
The Red Man, posed by Takes Enemy, Amos Two Bulls — Sioux Indians from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Delaney suggests that as a photographer, Käsebier tried to find in her subjects the same characteristics she valued in her own life: independence and personality. Michaels believes that in her American Indian portraits, specifically, Käsebier may have been working with two concurrent aims: to show individual personalities but also “to suggest an archetypal Indian.”
She worked hard to catch that elusive, fleeting image. As Michaels notes, The Red Man, the most famous of her photographs of American Indians, shows a man wrapping himself in a blanket. That iconic image comes from the very end of a photo session in which Käsebier hadn’t managed to capture what she wanted. Finally one of the frustrated subjects — “petulant” is how Käsebier described him — swung his blanket around his face and shoulders and glared at the camera. Recognizing what photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would later call “the decisive moment,” Käsebier snapped the photo — and made one of the great American portraits.
She had come into the West.
As British-born Evelyn Jephson Cameron told a reporter for a 1906 article in the New York newspaper The Sun, she and her Scottish husband, Ewen, were on their honeymoon when they arrived in Montana for a hunting trip in the autumn of 1889 (though scholars note the couple wasn’t then legally married, and may never have been). But after adventures with mountain lions and grizzly bears in Yellowstone River country, they decided they didn’t want to leave. They settled down in the ranchlands near Miles City and Terry.
Though the Camerons had a notion they might earn money by raising polo ponies, Evelyn’s diaries make it clear that her photography became their most successful money-making enterprise. That’s where her life began to lead down a path that would land her in the same field as Gertrude Käsebier. She’d first tried to earn money by taking in boarders and selling vegetables, and it was her first two boarders who taught her the basics of photography.
From then on, she was largely on her own, though she probably learned from the respected Miles City photographer L.A. Huffman over the years. Her diaries suggest she’d known him at least since 1895, and in 1916, she was impressed after a visit to his $2,200 studio. But mostly she was self-taught. She took photographs of livestock, farm kitchens, children and pets, cattle drives, ranchers shearing sheep and cutting prairie hay, railroad men, homesteaders, badlands. She may have been the first deliberate photographer of wild birds in Montana, long before it was a recognized specialty, thanks to the birding expeditions on which she accompanied Ewen, an amateur ornithologist who wrote articles for magazines and journals about the region’s bird life. As historian Henry L. Armstrong has documented, some of those birding tours took the Camerons deep into central Montana, far from their eastern Montana home.
At every step of the way she kept a diary of her life on the Plains from 1893 to 1928. Together, the photographs and journals are a treasure, as scholar Donna M. Lucey — then a Time-Life Books editor searching for photos to tell the region’s history — realized when she met Cameron’s heir in 1979. There in a Montana basement were 1,800 negatives, 2,500 original prints, and accompanying letters and diaries — all the work of a woman who was then known only to a handful of Montana historians.
Baby Ted holding his father’s hand, Effie and Philip Dawson on the Cross S Ranch near Mizpah, Montana
As Lucey wrote in her 1990 book that introduced Cameron to the world, Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron, the photos and diaries provide “perhaps the most complete portrait we have of one woman’s pioneer experience — a virtual home movie of life on the frontier.” Even Montanans were stunned by the photos, as Cameron biographer Lorna Milne noted: “Evelyn had given form to what we knew as interesting and beautiful.”
The Camerons’ idea to live by photography surfaced in 1893 when they considered moving to the Orkney Islands. Ewen, they thought, could write a book about the nature there, and Evelyn could shoot accompanying photos. Instead they would make part of that scheme work in Montana, as Evelyn took up photography and sold prints and albums to people who wanted images of their lives in Montana.
Cameron’s journals — digitized and available online as part of the Montana Memory Project (mtmemory.org) — provide a look at how photography fit in to the life of this working ranch woman. This excerpt from March 2, 1908, a Monday, is typical: “Arose 6:55. B[reakfas]t 8:15. Milked. Fed chicks. Strewed hay for cattle where could be seen for photography. With Graphlex climbed opposite hill ½ way up — took two [of] ranch 4, s 32, Ash tree foregr[oun]d 2 sec 32, Ranch closer all cattle 3s. 16, Ranch closest few cattle 2 sec 32. Calm. Sun partially obscured by cl[ou]ds. Washed up. Swept. Stuck photos in Mrs. Archdale’s & Lionel’s albums. Then cut & folded & stuck blue pieces [of] writing paper under photos to write names [of] photos on, Dinner at 2. 3 egg omelet I [had]. E[wen had] chick, macaroni, biscuit pud[din]g, cream. Continued albums. Only got Mrs. A’s done by 5. Chores. Chicks fed. Hayed barn, fo[wl] ho[use] Shed. Cattle cut in. Didn’t feed outsiders. Ho[use] chores. In 6:30. Sup[per] 7:10. W[ashed] D[ishes].”
The wonder is that, without formal training, Evelyn Cameron not only mastered the technical aspects of dry-plate photography but also learned composition. Some images — children in front of storefronts, or homesteader couples in their dirt-floor kitchens — are moving in the same way as Walker Evans’ later photographs from the Deep South. Others are simply fine photographs. “The best,” Lucey writes, “rise into the realm of art.”
Child seated in doorway, Nels Undem with his flock of sheep at Curious Butte
In that realm, there is, for example, a portrait of a child standing on a chair; in the frame, a clipped-off portion of the unseen father, vividly evoking the way one generation holds the hand of the one to come, literally and figuratively. A photograph of Britons Effie and Philip Dawson, he, with a grouse or prairie chicken in hand against a backdrop of hills, suggests the sporting life that had first brought the Camerons to the West. An image of sheep rancher Nels Undem creates a kind of symmetry within the Montana landscape, making the rancher loom above his sheep the way the pinnacle in the background juts above the prairie.
Evelyn Cameron could have been a poster child for the things Gertrude Käsebier believed: first of all, that photography was a path to independence for women. Käsebier scholars Stephen Petersen and Janis A. Tomlinson cite a 1902 article that says “modern photography ... has opened a new field in journalism which is largely filled by women.” Even in such matters as clothing, the two women would have agreed. Michaels notes that Käsebier was “an advocate of dress reform, of comfort in women’s clothing.” In faraway Montana, as that 1906 article for The Sun newspaper tells it, “Mrs. Cameron is the Englishwoman who introduced the divided skirt into that part of the country in the days before you could buy a pattern for one in any department store.”
Did Evelyn Cameron and Gertrude Käsebier have any idea of each other’s work? It’s possible that Cameron might have chanced upon a magazine article about the better-known Käsebier, but there’s no mention of Käsebier in Cameron’s years and years of diaries. It’s possible that Käsebier, living in New York, might have seen the November 4, 1906, article in The Sun about Cameron. If so, she might have paused at the Montana ranchwoman’s assessment that the great hunting days were past in that part of the world, and all that was left for the sportswoman was to hunt with a camera. But the article is about Cameron and big-game hunting, and that is the only reference to her photography in the piece.
There is one tantalizing clue that someone who knew Cameron’s photography — her colleague in Miles City, L.A. Huffman — may actually have pored over Käsebier’s portraits and compared the two favorably. Cameron’s diary notes excitedly on May 4, 1900, when she was still relatively young as a photographer, that she found an overlooked letter from Huffman “in which he says he had been to New York & seen many photos, professional & amateur, but none that pleased him better than mine at the Agent’s Towers of this ranch!”
Evelyn Cameron’s honest, heartfelt work still pleases today.
Photography: (leading image) Montana Historical Society
From the February/March 2019 issue.