In 1886, Horace Nichols, a penitentiary worker turned rancher, moved his family from Boulder, Colorado to south-central Wyoming to homestead as his two brothers had previously done. He established a ranch on the north fork of the Encampment River in the upper north Platte Valley along the Snowy Range Mountains, a site the family would name “Willow Glen.” His daughter Lora, three years old when the family first moved to Wyoming, began a diary at the age of 13 that she faithfully continued for 65 years. Three years after beginning her lifelong commitment to her diary, Lora began making photographs that she also continued until the year of her death in 1962. Throughout two marriages, the rearing of six children, the proprietorship of several small businesses, and the solo relocation to California, Lora made and collected 24,000 photographs. This extensive collection of diaries and images provides first-hand insight into life in the early 20th century, including the rise and fall of the region’s copper boom, the country’s slip into the Great Depression, and the lives of the families that intersected throughout the decades in this isolated Wyoming town.
I first learned of the Lora Webb Nichols collection in the summer of 2012. I was participating as an artist-in-residence at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts located about 60 miles west of Laramie, Wyoming. As part of my routine to any new place, I researched the nearby highlights and I was enchanted by the name of the nearby town of Encampment. Encampment’s most noteworthy highlight is the Grand Encampment Museum, an interpretive center dedicated to preserving the historical buildings and artifacts associated with the region’s short-lived copper boom of the early 20th century.
The Grand Encampment Museum website claimed the museum housed a photo collection by a pioneer photographer from Encampment that contained 24,000 images. The quantity seemed to me to be a misprint. The pioneer era photographer I was most familiar with at the time, Solomon Butcher of central Nebraska, left behind around 3,000 negatives. The quantity, combined with the fact that the photographer was female and began photographing at the age of 16, made the archive sound both implausible and intriguing. Because my time at the Brush Creek residency, I did not further investigate the museum and its holdings, but it remained in my thoughts.
The following summer, I planned a drive to visit friends in Colorado, and decided to make a stop in Encampment along the way to visit the museum and see the archive. In advance of my visit, I found a book by Nancy Anderson, a Nichols’ family friend, about the life of Lora Webb Nichols. With an oddly patriarchal title, the book, Lora Webb Nichols, Homesteader’s Daughter, Miner’s Bride, was delightfully readable. Consisting mostly of Lora’s own diary entries, the book focused on a short span of Nichols’s life from 1897–1910, edited as an homage to pioneer life and only briefly mentioning her photographic experiences. In the book, Lora’s voice was authentic and captivating — she chronicled the sense of community, particularly among the girls and women of Encampment, providing insight into the day-to-day life of a sparsely populated region battered by extreme weather. I found that her daily internal thoughts echoed the memories of my own internal space growing up as a young girl many decades later.
I let the museum know I would be passing through and looking forward to spending some time looking at Lora’s photographs, and they seemed well prepared to welcome me. My arrival to the Grand Encampment Museum led to the discovery that, although the archive in its entirety had been scanned in the 1990s by Nancy Anderson and her husband Victor, the images were stored on now outdated DVD-RAM Type 1 cassettes (the short-lived precursor to the DVDs of today) that were inaccessible in any logical and feasible way with current computer operating systems. Although the museum still had the original 1990s iMac used in scanning the files, each image took about 90 seconds to open, making a meaningful examination of the contents of the vast archive impossible. At the time of the scanning, the original negatives were also vacuum sealed and stored in freezers in an outbuilding of the museum, a system Nancy had meticulously researched and implemented in the early 2000s. But with no manageable way to access the photographs, the archive was not viewable.
I luckily had the opportunity to meet Nancy while in Encampment. She had been designated by Lora’s descendants as curator and caretaker of the archive. I learned the photographs had not been donated to the museum, but were rather on-loan as a resource for the town’s pinnacle destination of historic materials. She voiced her frustration at the Grand Encampment Museum’s inability to manage the archive and have it available to researchers and museum visitors. She was worried that her and Victor’s incomprehensible amount of hours spent on the preservation of the archive had gone to waste.
The only hint I had of what the 24,000 image archive actually contained was a series of 100 images selected by Nancy as the “Favorites” — a collection of greatest hits selected with the mission of the museum’s preservation of Encampment’s mining history and settlement in mind. These 100 images were printed from the scans she had made and placed in a series of binders in the museum’s library. The favorites included photographs of the town’s 16-mile elevated tramway that was built to carry copper ore from the mine to the smelter, a replica of which is a highlight on the museum grounds. Additionally, the favorites included some family portraits, images of miners, and the social events of the early 20th century.
I stayed in Encampment for five days, attempting to problem-solve the accessibility problem with Nancy. On top of this, I quickly realized that I was navigating an awkward relationship with the museum staff. As an outsider, I was met with suspicion upon arrival that only continued to grow as the days passed by. As I continued to get closer to figuring out a technologically solution to the digital files in limbo, the museum director let it be known through a series of panicked text messages to the museum board of directors that this academic from California was moving in on a collection that was viewed as a potential financial resource for the small interpretive center.
What ultimately transpired during this brief visit to Encampment in 2013 culminated in a stop at the Bank of the West in Saratoga, WY twenty miles north of Encampment on my way out of town to scoop up a copy of the digitized photo archive and leave town with it. I met with Nancy and the then vice-president of the GEM board who released to me from the bank’s security deposit box a spare copy of the DVD RAM cassettes that contained the entire Lora Webb Nichols archive. The whole encounter felt like something out of a gangster movie, complete with a navy blue suitcase being quickly loaded into the trunk of my car.
I had agreed to transport the cassettes back with me to California, and spend the following few months transferring the files onto a hard drive. I wasn’t quite sure what I had gotten myself into, but my interest in the archive had been viewed by Nancy as a kind of saving grace for a collection of images that I really knew so little about. And Nancy, with her magnetic personality and clear passion for Lora’s work, convinced me with her enthusiasm that I wanted to be involved in the task. To appease the stakeholders of the museum, I agreed to have everything returned to Wyoming by May 2014, and I headed out of town in a haze of confusion as to what exactly had transpired, and unsure of the work that lay ahead.
Upon my return home, I spend several months with the suitcase of cassettes methodically transferring the files with a decades old DVD-Ram reader to an external hard drive. I recruited some Humboldt State University students to assist in converting the files to small, compressible jpegs and creating easy-to-view PDF documents of the collection. During the 1990s, Nancy had also transcribed all available information about the individual images– dates, names, etc. I knew little about Lora Webb Nichols at this stage except that she was a detailed record keeper that made this task feasible. I created a spreadsheet of the data that could be cross-referenced with the image file name.
24,000 images, no matter what form or organizational structure they take, is a profound quantity.
Despite the several digital management options on the market, I quickly realized that the Grand Encampment Museum was not equipped to handle the management of Lora Webb Nichols’ work. The museum, mostly run by volunteer retirees and students, was unable to recruit any staff with museum training. In my early attempts to find a more plausible home for Lora’s work, I researched other archives I was aware of and looked closer into who maintained the work and how accessible the images were to the public. This included the most sensational of recently surfaced images of Vivian Maier, a collection swept up into the commercial gallery market world and currently entangled in next-of-kin copyright litigation. Additionally, I looked into Evelyn Cameron’s archive, who I see as Lora’s closest contemporary. Some of Evelyn Cameron’s work is viewable on an ecommerce style website where visitors can purchase prints or view a select few photographs with a large watermark across the middle. Both of these routes keep the work outside of the public domain to protect the archives’ market value.
Without even yet being fully aware of what the archive contained, I strongly felt that Lora’s work should be made available as widely as possible to the public. I felt that a prolific female photographer who kept detailed notes of 24,000 images and left behind 65 years of diaries from early 20th century Wyoming left behind something that would dismantle the myths and assumptions about women of that era.
Lora left behind a major contribution to the history of photography and the history of the settlement of the American West, so I wanted to find a way to make sure the work didn’t hide behind paywalls or get lost in litigation. I used the Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection at Indiana University as my template. It’s an archive from an amateur photographer I heard about on NPR in 2012 and I had previously spent time using the searchable Cushman database to look up images of my hometown. The work is viewable online by year, location, subject, genre, along with Cushman’s notebooks.
Luckily, Nancy felt the same way about the future of the collection. I learned of the American Heritage Center (AHC) at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, a primary source document repository for historical documents. The AHC seemed the best hope of a place that would be interested in Lora’s work from a regional perspective and also capable of Cushman-style accessibility.
I spent time throughout 2014 engrossed in a series of letters, email exchanges and phone calls with Nancy, the Grand Encampment Museum board, and the American Heritage Center working towards securing a new home for the archive. I received letter exchanges between the Nichols family and the Grand Encampment Museum dating back decades regarding the ownership of the archive. I contacted copyright lawyers, made the case to the AHC that the work fit the mission of their collection, and tap-danced around small-town politics from afar. Eventually we came to an agreement that the AHC would house the physical negatives, and both the Grand Encampment Museum and the AHC would have a digitized copy of the complete photo archive. Nancy convinced Lora’s next-of-kin to sign the photo archive over to the public domain to prevent future issues of copyright litigation. Although no longer home to the physical negatives, the Grand Encampment Museum now has a readily accessible digitized version of the photographs and is also home to Lora’s diaries. The diaries were donated to the museum, and although in my perfect world the negatives and diaries would be stored together at the AHC, the Grand Encampment Museum has been acquiring grants to digitize and make publicly available the content of the diaries.
After all of the coordination involved in finding a new home for the archive, I was able to finally begin looking at the Lora Webb Nichols archive in earnest in 2015. Spanning 1899 to 1962, the images chronicle the life of this small town through an intimate lens. The photographs span the experimental, the snapshot, the formal portrait, scenery, snow storms, etc. A unique aspect of the collection is that about 30% of the images were created by other photographers, including Lora’s employees and customers from her photofinishing business. The image files were not in chronological order, nor were they ordered by the creator, but patterns develop while going through them. This included both reoccurring subjects- children’s birthdays, Christmas trees, and gardens documenting the passage of time, and a certain aesthetic pattern of choice of framing, consideration of light, etc. As a photographer, I attempted to decipher a kind of thought-process Lora may have gone through as she learned her craft throughout the decades. Her greatest strength was in her portrait work. To me, there was a striking similarity to the work of German photographer August Sander, roaming the towns and country sides of Germany throughout the early 20th century. There is a seriousness to her portraits that either reflect a mysterious way she had a connection to her sitters, or a reverence towards the photographic process, or both. Even her earliest portraits from 1899 present her close friends and family members with a stoicism and grace that make it hard to believe they were taken by a teenager learning an involved craft in isolation in the Wyoming frontier.
I wanted to experience the images removed from Lora’s writings, having at first only a cursory understanding of her life story. I knew she married a miner, Bert Oldman at the young age of 17 who was many years her senior, a fact that her family reluctantly resigned themselves to. Lora and Bert had two children, and Bert spent much of the time throughout their marriage working off in the mines, leaving Lora in Encampment much of the time to manage the household and children. Lora and Bert divorced after 10 years of marriage, and a few years later, Lora married her first cousin Guy Nichols. Lora and Guy had four children together, and Lora helped supplement the family’s income with a photography store, a soda fountain, and running a local newspaper. During the depression, some of Lora’s most engaging work was created — making portraits of the Civilian Conservation Crew boys and men that traveled to the area to work in the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Despite the proliferation of work she created during this time, Lora left her family in 1935 to start a new life alone in Stockton, California. This seemingly abrupt departure from Wyoming was a particularly salacious detail in Lora’s history, especially considered how embedded she was in the cultivation of the physical space and community of the region she left behind. Notwithstanding what seemed an abrupt relocation with very little financial means, Lora reestablished herself in California. Working first as domestic help for others, and later working in a children’s home, she created a new world out west and eventually returned to Wyoming after her retirement in 1956.
When looking through other historic archives of this era, the people and places often feel removed. I’ve often felt this was a manifestation of the technological limitations of the photographic medium. For example, film lacked sensitivity to light, so often a photographic exposure would be much longer than the fractions of a second we take for granted now. Requiring sitters to hold still often led to a formal, rigid quality in portraits, and early photographs lack the gestures and subtleties of the human form that, for me, make a portrait captivating. However, even with these technological limitations, that barrier is removed in Lora’s work, and her subjects seem full of life and expressiveness, giving me the sense that these people are familiar to me.
One early image that I find particularly captivating is of a young women standing in a home bent over at the waist with her knee length hair draped down in front of her. It’s an unexpected moment, nestled between Lora’s attempts at more formal photographs of her friends, dressing up for the camera and taking on demure poses.
While I can only speculate, the spirited youthfulness of a 16-year-old behind the camera contributed to the lightness of the early portions of the collection. This is combined with the exploration of the vast expansive landscape that surrounded the small homesteads, and of the men, women, and children traversing and cultivating the region. From a contemporary standpoint, I interpret through Lora’s subject matter a sense of adventure in her personality, yet this is likely just a manifestation of what was required of Wyoming homesteaders in the early 20th century. Making their way across the mountainous terrain by horseback, home bound through major portions of the year from snow, wind, and cold, and caring for animals, gardens, and children are all part of the life story in pictures Lora left behind.
When I finally returned to Encampment in June of 2015 to continue my research, I was ready to read the diaries. Having familiarized myself with the content of the collection, I was focused on finding information relating to Lora’s relationship with image-making and more details of internal dialogue. I felt as though I knew something about what Lora valued — the relationships with her close friends and family, her fondness of animals, her sense of wonder at the surrounding landscape.
However, the week in Encampment delving into her writings was darker and filled with much more sorrow that I could have imagined based simply on the images. And in hindsight this makes sense why the experience of the image-based life story versus the diary were so vastly different in emotional weight. We do not photograph the darkest parts of mourning or poverty or discontent.
I believe Lora would have made these images if it were possible, for her words suggest that her photography was a refuge and even in the depths of abject poverty she found ways to make photography a part of her life.
There are many things left unrevealed in her writings. For example, no explanation or anecdotal incidents are written about that give a reason for the failure of Lora’s first marriage to Bert Oldman. However, beginning around 1906, there are suggestions that Lora began her photography pursuit in earnest. In addition to printing images for others, Lora was engaged in a correspondence class in photography. Community members were seeking Lora’s help in correctly loading and operating their cameras. In 1907, she meets a New York photographer named George Irving who is in the area photographing for a mining company. He provides Lora with technical advise on developers, printing techniques and introduces her to his 5x7 camera. Upon his departure from Encampment he leaves Lora with some photography equipment and the two of them continue correspondence for several years. He eventually sells her his 5x7 camera for $15.00 in 1909. But it is as early as 1907 that Lora, who has been hired by the mining companies and local families for her photography services, began to realize that photography had the potential to bring income in. Work in the area for her husband was sporadic, which was likely a major impetus for finding additional sources of income. On November 7, 1907, she writes a quote from Rudyard Kipling’s The Light that Failed, “All we can do is learn how to do our work to be masters of our materials instead of servants and never to be afraid of anything.” But she lacks support from her husband to make a full venture of her trade.
During the period of 1909–1910 her diaries are filled with the most writings about her burgeoning home-grown photography business, working from a darkroom that she has built in the house she shares with Bert and their young children. She works as both a photographer and photo finisher, continuing to travel throughout the region for photo jobs during the day and printing at night. As her first marriage is dissolving, she takes refuge in her image-making, writing about her day-to-day visitors, household chores, and her continuing and new customers that hire her for photographs. She began to speculate about ordering inventory of cameras from Ansco to start a camera rental and resale business for extra income. In 1910, she began ordering large freight orders of photography chemicals to keep her costs low. Around this time, Lora also began making postcards, or “postals”, of her images and the images of others that she collected, and to reprint and resell as souvenirs.
By the summer of 1911, her divorce from Bert is finalized, and she continues her photography work for the next few years. During this time, her diary chronicles at length the time-consuming nature of her small business and her brother Cliff provides her funds for inventory from Ansco. She works with her mother on her photography trade and takes a part-time job at the Couzens Store Co, and begins a correspondence course in bookkeeping. In August of 1912 she writes, “This business of being a ‘working girl’ and having no spare time is still a matter of wonderment to me.” By this time she is already being courted by Guy Nichols, Lora’s first cousin, and by the summer of 1914 she is remarried.
Lora’s life, at this point, seems brimming with amazing possibilities. With a prospering photography business, she continued to refine her technical skills and take on the logistics of running a small business. Lora defined her role in the Encampment community as a skilled tradeswomen. But her marriage to Guy changes her course, and from 1915 to 1921, her business goes into hibernation as she gives birth to four children in that span of time. And from this time up until her departure for California in 1935, her diary contains heartbreaking accounts of intense financial struggle and dark ponderings on the lack of meaning and purpose in her life. It’s difficult to fully make sense of the drama unfolding during this time, caring for six children while the economics of the region changed and the mining companies were going bankrupt. The portrayal of Guy Nichols in her diaries, while not elaborate, does not paint a very positive picture. Lora portrays him as an undependable head of the household, frequently quitting jobs abruptly, jumping from one potential money-making scheme to the next. The shift in the tone of her writings during this second marriage is deeply saddening, especially compared with the passion and enthusiasm for which she wrote about her own pursuits just prior to their union.
It is around 1925 when Lora takes on a new venture that begins a ten-year-long redefining of her role as Encampment image-maker. The Nichols’ buy a building in town and Lora begins to run the town newspaper, The Encampment Echo, and starts to rebuild her darkroom space. By 1926, she gets the go-ahead from the Eastman Kodak Co. to operate under their name. However, it is under stipulation that she does “no photographic portrait work.” Without any additional information contained within Lora’s archive of materials about this detail, I can only speculate that this stipulation, allowing Lora to work as a photofinisher under Kodak’s name, was meant to encourage the consumer market sales of camera and film of Kodak’s branding. But this key detail in her diaries helps explain the nature of the “Rocky Mountain Studio” that became the focus of Lora’s working life for the following decade.
The Rocky Mountain Studio prospered seasonally throughout the late 1920’s and 1930’s, although it did not provide enough income to keep the Nichols family free of constant financial problems. However, Lora was able to secure deals with the drug store, Druerig Drug Co. in Saratoga, to act as the drop-off point for photofinishing order. Additionally, the several ranches in the area, including the Skyline Ranch for Boys and the A-A Ranch, provided the source for much of her work. Lora hired photofinishing help and in-the-field photographers to assist with the orders coming in during this period. Lora also bought negatives from customers that had images that Lora felt she could remake into postcards and resell. Insight into how this type of transaction played out was found in a handwritten note within the Rocky Mountain Studio envelope “Grace: I “held out” a negative of yours. I pay 25 cents for negatives. I can use for view cards. If you don’t want me to have it — come up and kill me! Lora”
Lora’s diaries throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s functioned most as a captain’s log of financial struggle. She finds solace, though, in her network of those around her she photographed, as she writes on New Year’s Even 1929:
Once more at the end of a year. Sometimes I feel a lot like a squirrel in a cage, going around and around, and accomplishing nothing; then I look at the young hopefuls, growing and developing to an amazing extent, and becoming more helpful and less troublesome and the blessed realization come to me that I am accomplishing a great deal. My old panacea for heartaches still holds good and some of the rare sweet friendships these young people have given me makes me know unquestionably that my life is somehow justified.
Despite the condition that Lora not do photographic portrait work, this limited her in the sense that only the physical studio did not contain a portrait set-up. But Lora continued throughout this time to make some of her most captivating portrait work. This climaxed during the depths of the Great Depression. The Encampment region was inundated with workers from the Civilian Conservation Corp, the public works program that began in 1933. Before and after making their way into the field, these young men would stop in Encampment at The Sugar Bowl, the soda fountain that was another of Lora’s small business ventures. She took this opportunity to make portraits during this time, of both these newcomers, and of the community of friends she continued to cultivate throughout her life. The summer of 1933 was the most prolific time of Lora’s photographic practice, yet there is not a single diary entry at all during this season. Likely she was so engaged in the bustle around her that time did not permit.
In January 19, 1935 Lora’s mother Sylvia passes away. It is not long after that Lora moves to Stockton. She told people the move is for her health, that a relocation to sea-level was needed for her ailments. I was unable to find out why the choice of Stockton, California. There seemed to be little connection, other than an image from her very first days in Stockton of a young man named Loren Steele who had his roots in Wyoming. Lora remained married to Guy for the remainder of her life, but she redefined herself in California. After stumbling though some jobs as a caretaker in various homes, she eventually found long-term work in a children’s home. She worked her way up at this place of employment and managed to buy property and establish some financial stability she always lacked in Wyoming. Throughout Lora’s California period, she made several trips back to Wyoming, and her children frequently came out to see her. While her photography continued throughout the remainder of her life, she used it as one would expect any other avid amateur would use the medium at the time. She made family snapshots, photographed her travel destinations, and documented her growing garden. In the new mental and physical space that California provided, she no longer needed the camera as a source of income, but continued to use the camera as a companion.
With financial help from the Wyoming Cultural Trust, the photo archive is slated to be accessible in an online database on the American Heritage Center website in 2020. Volunteers at the Grand Encampment Museum have been busy writing grants related to their Nichols materials and transcribing the diaries. I currently have a pending proposal with the AHC to develop a touring photography exhibition of highlights from the collection and am continually strategizing methods to drum up in interest in Lora’s story and images. Now five years into my involvement with Lora Webb Nichols, I like to think I’ve made more friends than enemies out of my push to move the negatives to a new home and make them public domain. And I am hopeful that each institution involved has a richer appreciation for the work Lora left behind and that interest in this prolific image-maker and entrepreneur over time will grow.
Financial support for the preservation of and research into the work of Lora Webb Nichols has been provided by the following: Peter E. Palmquist Memorial Fund, Wyoming Historical Society’s Lola Homsher Grant Program, and Humboldt State University.
Nicole Jean Hill was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. She received a BFA in photography from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and an MFA in Studio Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her photographs have been exhibited throughout the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia, including Gallery 44 in Toronto, the Australia Centre for Photography in Sydney, and the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon. She currently resides in Humboldt County, California and is a Professor of Art at Humboldt State University.
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