August 11, 2017

Trials of a Prairie Photographer

By Christopher Gray, Digital Projects Intern

Evelyn Cameron’s photography was born from necessity and love for the art. The Camerons were frequently out of cash, so Evelyn sold vegetables, hosted boarders, and took up photography to supplement what little income they had.

Living on a ranch, Evelyn was no stranger to hard work. Photography in the 1890s and early 20th century was a demanding and tricky endeavor, so adding the business of making photographs to her daily routine would have taken a great deal of energy and motivation.

Though photography was rapidly becoming more accessible to the public, it had not reached the level of efficiency it has today. Evelyn had only what was technologically available in Montana at the turn of the last century. Living on the prairie, her options were further limited to whatever mail-order equipment she could afford. Despite these limitations, Evelyn managed to excel at her work.

Some of the other difficulties she faced included a camera with slow shutter speeds [1] and photographic plates that weren’t very light-sensitive.

Catalog # PAc 90-87.G002-016
“Mary Phillips, May 4th, 1905.”
Photograph by Evelyn Cameron

For example, this picture, taken with a 5x7 Kodak in 1905, illustrates how Evelyn worked within those technical limits. She wrote her camera settings for this picture in her diary, noting a shutter speed of 1/5 of a second and an aperture of f32—slow shutter, small aperture [2]. These settings were necessitated by the slowness of the plate (about ISO 5 or 10) and Evelyn’s aesthetic preference [3]. She preferred well-defined backgrounds for her pictures, and a small aperture allowed that. 




Slow shutter speeds are no nuisance if the subject is stationary, the camera is mounted on a tripod, and the wind is calm. However, Evelyn’s subjects and the prairie wind were seldom still. 

Catalog #PAc 90-87.G003-002
“Cat sitting in hole in rock. 1900”
Photograph by Evelyn Cameron


Cats especially fall into the “seldom still” category. Pet photography is best done with a fast shutter speed, but here Evelyn used a slow shutter speed and a small aperture (perhaps out of habit). That the cat, Patchy, stayed still for this picture seems like a miracle. However, that Patchy appears unblurred in a handful of other photos suggests the cat was a more agreeable model than most. 






Catalog #PAc 90-87.G059-011
“[[Railroad crew on handcar]. 
[Five railroad workers standing on handcar.] [ca. 1910]”
Photograph by Evelyn Cameron





This photo of Northern Pacific workmen on a handcar may look ordinary for a moment, but its odd nature soon becomes apparent. Evelyn took two images on the same plate, most likely by accident. Looking closely, it seems she took one picture without the workmen and one with them. Note how the man on the far right looks translucent!











Catalog # PAc 90-87.NB067K
“[Family on parsonage porch, Marsh, Montana]. 
At the Lutheran Church parsonage. July 25, 1920”
Photograph by Evelyn Cameron


Finally, some unintentional elements in a photo can actually improve it. This would be a normal, staid family photo were it not for the mischievous young’un peering from behind the screen door. This may have gone unnoticed by Evelyn as she took the picture, but given her sense of humor she probably knew the girl was there and proceeded anyway.







[1] Only until late 1905, when she received a more advanced camera.
[2] Cameron diary, 7 May 1905
[3] Cameron diary, 27 June 1904

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