A surprise trove of early images, taken by unknown woman photographer, offers a rare view of the early 20th century West – The Denver Post

There are two ways to appreciate the images of south-central Wyoming captured in the early 20th century by Lora Webb Nichols and currently on display at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center.

They are historic documents. The two dozen black-and-white photos in the exhibition record decades of the Western way of life as the region completed its transition from the nation’s frontier to its agricultural heartland. Nichols’ pictures captured how people made their homes and livings, how they dressed, recreated, courted and found community.

But they also rise to the level of art, making them fitting fare for a gallery dedicated to showcasing photography’s creative edges. Nichols brought her point of view to the scenes she froze. She had an easy, candid style — another critic described it perfectly as “unfussy” — that allowed the complex humanity of her subjects to show.

Nichols, who was born in 1883 and died in 1962, took thousands of photographs, which have been assembled and chronicled by the exhibit’s curator Nicole Jean Hill. For this show, titled “Photographs Made, Photographs Collected,” Hill focuses on the portraits that Nichols made of the people around her, primarily in and around the town of Encampment, roughly 80 miles west of Laramie and about as isolated as a community could be during that time.

The photos feel like a revelation, telling the story of a place and era few know deeply. But the exhibition is equally fascinating because of the way the curator uses it to tell Nichols’ own story.

She was a rare thing in her day, a working photographer when the occupation was still new, a professional woman with her own business in a period before that was common. She married twice, raised six children, moved across the West and still managed to produce an extraordinarily large body of work.

She photographed what she saw around her: local families, laborers, the young men who passed through the area working for the Civilian Conservation Corp in the 1930s and, in the backdrop of all that, vistas of domestic and work environments.

Notably, she turned her camera on other women — neighbors, relatives, school kids — creating an up-close view of a less visible class of early Westerners. There’s a striking naturalness to the work — even in her more formal portraits — that reveals both the challenges and casual joys of ranch and prairie life.

There are candid images of Wyomingites in everyday situations: a 1902 photo of Mabel Wilcox frolicking with her dog on the steps of a wooden cottage; a 1907 image of Nora Fleming nursing her infant son, Irwin; a 1913 shot of Lizzie Nichols, standing before a vast open space and offering some edible treat to a cat named Perkins.

These are the stereotypical images of country women — adults in long skirts and high-buttoned collars,  girls in school dresses — but made real. One memorable photo, from 1911, shows Mary Anderson combing out the long hair that women kept mostly tied up on top of their heads when in public. She runs her hands through a mane that must be 4 feet long.

Nichols captured their settings as well as their faces. A 1902 image of Elva and Carrie Hinman, leaning over a fence and staring directly at the camera, is one example. The photographer pulls way back, so the fence is as much a part of the picture as the young women themselves, and the roof and chimney of their cabin home are visible in the background. Here, we get a glimpse of humans and their habitats and how those things were intertwined.

Nichols also took pictures of men, of course, and there is a similar casualness. For her portrait of Carl Phillips in 1933, her subject sits properly in a chair, hands folded on his lap. But she does not fancy him up; his collar is loose and the folds in his clothes and jacket are important details of the portrait. This natural, modern way of photo-taking would come to define portraiture for the rest of the century.

Nichols trusted her camera and its abilities to ferret out the emotional life of her subjects without forcing things. That sets her apart from other female photographers such as Dorothea Lange, whose best-known work borders on melodrama, or Diane Arbus, a master of the subverted, posed shot. Nichols’ work is probably closer to that of Vivian Maier, who brought a similarly unequivocal eye to the streets of Chicago in the second half of the last century and who was, notably, also discovered after her death.

It is unfair, perhaps, to categorize Nichols only in the context of other female photographers, but they shared, a century ago, similar barriers to recognition and that influenced the way they made and disseminated their pictures.

As the show’s title implies, “Photographs Made, Photographs Collected” also highlights Nichols as a collector of other photographers’ works. Interspersed among her shots are images taken by photographers named Nina Platte and Harold Buckles. The juxtaposition is a little confusing — you have to look closely to see who the shooter was — but they do give context to Nichols’ work and explain her influences.

The show’s best asset is that it comes as a surprise, especially for Westerners who are interested in the region’s past and have likely never seen such a thorough and sincere cataloging of images from this particular period and place. Who knew such an archive even existed? Who realized it was so precious?

Nichols did, and she saved the visuals for the generations who followed.

If you go

“Lora Webb Nichols, Photographs Made, Photographs Collected” continues through Nov. 19 at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, 1070 Bannock St. It’s free. 303-837-1341 or cpacphoto.org.

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