Evelyn Cameron: Pioneer, photographer and historian
February 17, 2014
Over the past weeks, I've spent considerable time delving into the life of Evelyn Cameron. Hours spent reading her diaries, studying her photographs, reading books about her, and watching an award-winning documentary deepened my appreciation for her tenacity as a pioneer and skill as a photographer. If you're unfamiliar with Evelyn, please allow me to introduce you.
Born into a wealthy British family, Evelyn came West on her honeymoon. The year was 1889; Montana had just been admitted to the Union. Evelyn and her husband, Ewen, were so enamored with the landscape and wildlife they vowed to make it their home. Much to her family's dismay, the couple relocated. At first, they camped east of Miles City, Mont., near the Powder River. Evelyn's 1893 diary opens as they're settling into a cabin, a short distance south of Terry, Mont.
Over the next 35 years, until her death in 1928, Evelyn documented life in the American West, combining diary entries and images made using a glass-plate negative camera. A contemporary of L.A. Huffman, she recorded the final days of open range, embodied by XIT Ranch cowboys. She was there for the construction of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which carried a flood of homesteaders to the Plains.
Evelyn enjoyed local success as a photographer, and her work appeared in British and American publications. Still, it wasn't until 1990 that her life's story, illustrated with her photos and excerpts from her diaries, was told in glorious detail. Time-Life Books editor Donna M. Lucey brought Evelyn's saga to the public in Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron. Originally published as a hardback by Alfred A. Knopf, the large-format title has since been released as a paperback (2000, Mountain Press Publishing Company, 250 pages, 150 b/w photos, paperback, ISBN-13: 978-0878424252). It lists for $40.
Lucey spent seven years writing the book, recognized as the definitive work about Evelyn. Her discovery of Evelyn's original glass-plate negatives and diaries and subsequent research is lauded by historians and laymen. The Montana Historical Society, Helena, maintains these items and more in the Evelyn Jephson Cameron Collection. Diary transcriptions are available online within the Society's Montana Memories Project at http://cdm103401.cdmhost.com/.
Terry, Mont., is the official home of the Evelyn Cameron Gallery. Maintained by the Prairie County Museum, the gallery displays more than 100 enlargements and selected Cameron artifacts. Copies of Evelyn's diaries are available for research in the reading room. A collection of approximately 1,800 of her images is housed in the museum. The gallery and the museum are open anytime by appointment at 406-635-4529. Volunteers' phone numbers are posted on the doors.
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Also on display in the gallery is the Emmy Award for the documentary, Evelyn Cameron: Pictures from a Worthy Life, directed by John Twiggs (2005, Montana PBS, 60 minutes, ASIN: B000E6FVXQ). I first saw the film at the Custer County Art and Heritage Center in Miles City and was mesmerized by the vivid colors and powerful script. The DVD retails for $19.95 (shipping extra). It is available from Montana PBS at montanapbs.org/ and at Amazon. I purchased a copy in the Prairie County Museum's gift shop.
Also available in the gift shop as well as online is Meetings With Mrs. Collins: Sketches of Life and Events on Montana's Open Range; from the Diaries of Frontier Photographer Evelyn Cameron, 1893-1907 by Colleen Elizabeth Carter (2008, Outskirts Press, 196 pages, 22 b/w photos, softcover, ISBN-13: 978-1432727093). The lively narrative, written by the great-great-granddaughter of one of Evelyn's friends, is a delightful read. It draws heavily upon Evelyn's diary entries, in which she often mentioned Mrs. Mary Collins. Mary operated a boarding house in Terry. The paperback lists for $13.95.
Another book about the intrepid Briton is Evelyn Cameron: Montana's Frontier Photographer by Kristi Hager (2007, Farcountry Press, 128 pages, 118 b/w photos, softcover, ISBN-13: 978-1560374657). Hager has lectured on Evelyn through the Montana Committee for the Humanities Speakers Bureau. An Honor Book from the 2007 Montana Book Awards, it contains nearly 120 images. Long on pictures and short on text, it includes quintessential images from Evelyn's body of work. It lists for $14.95