Thursday, July 22, 2010

Evelyn Cameron -- 1868 - 1928

Evelyn Cameron
(1868 - 1928)
Montana's Frontier Photographer

Why are some black and white photographs so fascinating to look at and study? Is it because the subjects shown in them are dressed for the times? Or is it because one realizes how much time and effort went into each photograph? Perhaps the reason I enjoy looking at old photographs so much is because of photographers like Evelyn Cameron.

Looking at her self portraits, a person would come to the conclusion that she was a sturdy, work hardened woman with a sense of humor. She was. But look again. Don't you see the music in her images? What about close touch of nature ... and the way she set up her subject(s)? It is art. There is a touch here that feels gentler than the wind swept buttes of Montana.

Evelyn Jephson Flower was born in Britain to a wealthy merchant family on August 26th, 1868. She grew up in a large, comfortable house with servants to accomplish every task... even brush her hair. I don't know much about her growing up years but I do know that at the age of 21 (1889), she married Ewen Cameron and traveled to the badlands of eastern Montana to study bird habit and habitat. Her family didn't approve.

Ewen Cameron was a Scottish aristocrat who lived in 'genteel poverty' while pursuing his great interests in birds. He was fourteen years in her senior, eccentric and in need of someone just like Evelyn to balance him out.
In the year of 1893, the Camerons moved to Montana to escape society and find their own way in life. It was a year later that Evelyn got her first camera. She first purchased the camera because she wanted to help record her husband's studies. But she soon realized that it could become a source of income... and amusement. Her pictures marched their way over the ocean to England and her poor prim family was properly horrified at her escapades. But people did pay to have their pictures taken: bachelors sending home pictures to their loved ones; families capturing their growing years forever; homesteaders proudly standing in their best clothes by their small houses, barns and cellars; children and their pets; weddings; funerals;
confirmation and school classes.

She charged 25 cents per photograph, $3.00 for twelve photos mounted in an album. Her favorite camera was Tourist Graflex, which she purchased for $255.58 in 1905. “It made 5 – inch – by – 7 – inch glass-plate negatives, weighed 9 pounds, and was bigger than a breadbox.” Evelyn never owned an automobile. She carried her camera and equipment on horseback... or walked.

I mentioned earlier about the 'feel' of Mrs. Cameron's photographs. I find her pictures unusually professional with a touch only the untamed frontier can give. For instance, the accordion player perched in a tree; a friend with a boxed coyote pup; the Northern Pacific Railroad section foreman in his fringed native costume... with his pipe and gun; Ewen with his goshawk sitting on his arm; the herd of sheep with the lone shepherd and his dog (keep in mind how hard it is to keep animals still enough so they didn't blur!); and the photograph that Evelyn had Ewen take of herself, sitting on a narrow natural stone bridge over a high canyon, reading (she won first place in a contest... the contest theme being the oddest place to be reading it's magazine).

I highly recommend you taking a look at Evelyn Cameron's work. She is one of the very best black and white photographers I have had the pleasure to study.

Here are some sources:
Evelyn Cameron – Montana's Frontier Photographer – Text by Kristi Hager (2007; Farcounty Press) $14.95 (US)
The Camerons: Evelyn and Ewen, Birding in Central Montana, 1912 –13 (Henry L. Armstrong, 2002)
Before Barbed Wire: L.A. Huffman, Photographer on Horseback (Mark H. Brown and William R. Felton, 1990)
Photographing Montana, 1894 – 1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron (Donna M. Lucey, 1990)

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