Encampment, Wyoming, Selections from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive, 1899-1948

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Fw:Books (here). Hardcover, 21.5 x 28 cm, 208 pages, with 116 tritone reproductions. Includes essays by Nancy F. Anderson and Nicole Jean Hill and a list of plates, printed in silver on black paper (with 5 additional image reproductions). Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The introduction of the first Kodak Brownie camera in 1900 was a transformative moment in the broader history of photography. Prior to the arrival of the Brownie, photography was largely a pursuit for the intersection of the well-to-do and the scientifically minded, as costly (and bulky) equipment, dangerous chemicals, and obscure processes made it a difficult hobby for the mildly curious to pick up and master. For much of the 19th century, when someone wanted a photograph, he or she typically turned to a local professional (sometimes with a studio), an itinerant traveling photographer, or an inspired amateur, who managed the complex details of picture making and provided the customer with a final print.

The Brownie changed all that. The camera was simple and inexpensive (just a dollar or two in those days), and Kodak stepped in to handle all the back-end processing, either by mail or at a local processing store. Kodak’s advertising slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” summed up their innovative reorganization of the medium – by simplifying everything, it was now possible for everyday citizens to become photographers. The cameras were so easy to use that Kodak aimed much of their early marketing at children.

While the arrival of the Brownie essentially announced the birth of the photographic snapshot, it also allowed (and encouraged) photography to push out from the established cites of turn of the century America to more rural and frontier locations, thereby expanding our understanding of life in those communities. The fixed lens camera made good enough pictures to be useful as a documentary tool, and as demand for photo processing and finishing grew, so did the opportunities for intrepid photographic entrepreneurs to build small businesses around photography to serve local communities.

All of these threads come together in the recently rediscovered story of Lora Webb Nichols. Nichols received her first camera as a gift for her sixteenth birthday in 1899 and spent the better part of the next sixty years, through what would become two marriages and six children, in the thrall of the medium, leaving behind some 24000 images and sixty-five years of diaries and letters.

Her primary subject was life in the town of Encampment, Wyoming, a small frontier town at the base of the Sierra Madre mountains in the southern part of the state, whose claim to fame lies mostly with a short lived copper mining boom in the first decade of the 20th century, where it peaked at roughly 2000 residents (its population is now roughly 500). Nichols made pictures in and around Encampment, took commissioned portraits and commercial images from a growing home-based photo business there, and ultimately opened up an official Kodak photo finishing branch in 1926 in partnership with a local drugstore, which she ran through the Great Depression and into the mid-1930s.

After she died in 1962, Nichols’s archive was housed at the local Grand Encampment Museum, where it was rediscovered in the summer of 2012 by Nicole Jean Hill, who was an artist-in-residence at a nearby ranch. In subsequent years, Hill worked to organize the archive, and as a result of her efforts, the negatives were ultimately donated to the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, where the archive has been digitized for further study.

While Nichols’s personal story as an industrious female photographer making a successful career out of the limited options in a small frontier town in the American West has enough historical interest to keep us engaged on its own, it is her consistently excellent photographs that give this rediscovery story its durable artistic punch. This well-constructed volume provides a crisp introduction to her work, via a selection of over 100 black and white images, the edit emphasizing her portraits and images of everyday life in Encampment.

The cover photograph starts things off with a promising bang. It captures a frontier woman in a full length white dress standing outside with the vast expanse of the land emptying out into the distance in front of her. Cut logs and stacked wood nearby offer clues to the hard work being done, and a single spindly tree tries its best to fight the unrelenting horizontal sweep of the grasslands. The woman leans on a crutch – yet another detail of the struggle of this life – but the picture is dominated by a cat which has crawled up the woman’s body to catch a treat in her hand. The moment is both wonderfully joyful and strangely surreal, and Nichols has captured it with a deft sense for compositional timing.

Pets and animals provide a recurring subject for Nichols. The photobook opens with an image of a young girl lecturing her small back dog while sitting on the freshly hewn wooden steps of a house, and the playfulness of this picture continues on through a kitten perched on a boy’s hat, a man sharing his breakfast with a chipmunk, and a dog proudly held up to see out a car window just like the baby in the paired spread. Dogs and horses join a number of posed portraits, either as unexpected interlopers (like the black dog who interrupts a portrait of two children) or as valued friends and companions (like the shaggy dog sitting between two men in a tent). Hunting and fishing images grandly document two rifled men with a pair of bear skins, a young woman using her gun to hold up a deer with a large rack of horns, and a pair of men with the day’s haul of fish pouring out from woven baskets. And a young black colt gets an improvised portrait next to a house, with an intruding Friedlander-esque shadow to complete the composition.

The range and quality of Nichols’s portraiture creates the backbone of this photobook – again and again as the pages flip, we are treated to astonishingly resonant portraits of the residents of Encampment. In a few cases, Nichols tries out a white sheet background, but given the roughness of her world, her results with this approach generally feel too primly isolating (she tries this same approach with a couple of table top still lifes of a woman’s boot and a bouquet of flowers in a crystal vase with rather more success.) More often, she makes her images right in the flow of everyday life, using natural light and varying degrees of formal posing. The only two recurring motifs found in the book find young men alternately posed leaning against a mirrored fireplace mantel and then against the bar in a saloon, and the two setups lead to slightly differing moods – at home, the young men stand contemplatively in their best suits or military uniforms, looking away from the camera; in the bar, a different kind of confident swagger emerges, with jutting hips, spread legs, and hats tilted to one side as the men look right at us.

Nichols’s best portraits each catch a moment of authentic connection, the kind of revealing intimacy and individuality that photographic portraitists have searched for since the invention of the medium. She sees the quiet, enduring grace of two older women surrounded by hanging laundry and a pile of wood blocks to be split. She notices the wistfulness of an old woman sitting in a darkened doorway looking out at the brightness of the day, and the wary confidence of a younger woman whose simple pulled back hair and direct gaze confront us with their unadorned beauty. She captures the optimism of a man sitting in his bedroom with laced up boots and a cigarette, the friendly ruggedness of another standing in a muddy road with a long stick and pants frayed at the knees, the handsome strength of two men (one with a baseball glove) posing on a wooden boardwalk, and the confidence of another pair with a horse in the street, one with a pipe, the other with studded wrist covers. Her pictures of couples are similarly wonderful, with one awkward pair standing on the porch while a group of girls giggles behind the screen door, another standing in the woods with an unlikely amount of tender glamour, and a third staring at each other with wide eyed almost laughter. Nichols hits the mark with remarkable consistency in these portraits, even catching the subtle interaction of a young woman with a huge ribbon in her hair posing outside her house in the snow, while her father looks on from the doorway.

Children were another subject of reliable success for Nichols. Many of these images feature a prop or prominent object of some kind – an American flag, a 13th birthday cake, a swimming suit, a magnifying glass, a bicycle, a white knit hat, a basketball, a gun needing oil – which gives the portraits a broader sense of personality, interests, or a special moment being celebrated. Others exude energy and vitality, from a boy hanging upside down from a fencepost to a girl sitting with one leg up on the porch, her hint of a smile bringing the picture alive. Two images of particular note capture a group of girls sitting around drinking from tin cups and using a string to click the shutter, and then again tucked asleep outside in the open air with a pocketwatch tied to the limb of an evergreen hanging above their heads. Both pictures offer a sense of the closeness of childhood friendships and sisterhood, with ground-level vantage points increasing the intimacy of the moments.

Many of the other pictures included in Encampment, Wyoming document the rhythms of everyday life, but the clarity of Nichols’s vision makes them much more than snapshots. She uses the smoke from a campfire to shroud a picnic in atmospheric mist. She watches a woman brush out her extremely long hair, following it as it tumbles toward the floor. She captures the quiet affection of a couple lounging under a front yard tree, and another resting on a bed in the afternoon. She documents the ballet of playful fist fights, the strangeness of fur chaps and oversized eggs, the cluttered decorations of a holiday tree with stockings underneath filled with treats, and the backbreaking work of wielding a pick in the mines. She even follows the paths of the Brownie photography craze, from a cowboy armed with a folding version of the camera, to a man making an image of his dog and a young girl standing outside Nichols’s shop with her own camera. The archive also includes some standout images made by other photographers (both named and unnamed) that Nichols gathered up over the years, and a handful of these pictures have been added to the flow. Several offer slices of work life different than Nichols herself was around to see personally, including loggers up in trees and carrying long trunks, an overturned truck stuck in the mud, and men digging ditches.

The design of Encampment, Wyoming is pleasingly spare and unadorned. A dark grey linen cover houses two images (one each on the back and front), with the title in simple black type. The photographs take center stage in roomy reproductions that are bordered in white and arranged depending on their vertical or horizontal orientation. Both the in-depth backstory and the image captions have been smartly pushed to the back of the book in a separate section on black paper, forcing us to engage with the photographs even before we know about where and when they were made. The resulting sequencing creates a sense of surprised awe at the quality of these overlooked pictures, which is then reinforced by the history. It’s a photobook that is both sparse and unexpectedly engrossing, matching well the hardy practicality of the frontier life it documents.

It doesn’t seem likely that Nichols was particularly aware of the history of the photography, so to make potential stylistic comparisons to the compositions of Gertrude Käsebier, August Sander, Walker Evans, or Dorothea Lange seems somewhat misplaced, even if they may have been working contemporaneously. A more apt parallel likely exists with American photographers who stayed rooted in their local communities, like Mike Disfarmer in Arkansas. It is here that we find the humanity of picture makers who knew their subjects and locations well and lived long enough in the same place to see lives come and go.

With so many archives being unearthed and rediscovered these days, it can be hard to get freshly excited about yet another group of historic (or family) photos from some obscure locale, and optimistic nostalgia often clouds our judgement of just how good the photographs actually are. But Encampment, Wyoming is an outlier – few photobooks of historical material that I have seen recently have felt as powerful and well made as this one. Starting with the cover, and on through even just the first few pictures, this one cracks like a lightning strike, and after a dozen or two dozen images, my head was nodding with appreciation and recognition, interrupted only by an intermittent intake of breath associated with pleasing surprise. While this photobook merits the attention of a broad audience, it will be of particular interest to working photographers steeped in the nuances of portraiture. Between the plucky independent woman backstory, the consistently outstanding photographs, and the understated but elegant book presentation, Encampment, Wyoming has all the makings of a showstopper.

Collector’s POV: While the Lora Webb Nichols archive does not appear to have gallery representation, modern prints are available directly for the archive website (here).

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One comment

  1. Vaughn /

    Really nice review. Couldn’t agree more: “ few photobooks of historical material that I have seen recently have felt as powerful and well made as this one.”

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