August 24, 2017

L.A. Huffman: Photography in Motion

by Barbara Pepper-Rotness, Reference Librarian

L.A. Huffman on Horseback, [1879-1930]
MHS Photo Archives # 981-929

Much has been written about frontier photographer, Laton Alton Huffman, and those writings provide an indispensable view of this prolific man, who saw “an opportunity to record a disappearing era [and] made both beautiful and historic photographs.” [1] He could capture the harsh beauty and expansiveness of the plains in a way that was expressive and seemingly three-dimensional. Additionally, he recorded, through his pen and his camera, meticulous details about life in eastern Montana during the late 1800s-early 1900s, some of his best being those of early frontier cowboys and their ways. And, he was rather poetic in the telling, as in this statement - printed on many catalog brochures - of his own work.

“Kind fate had it I should be Post Photographer with the Army during the Indian Campaigns, following annihilation of Custer’s command. Round-about us in this Yellowstone Big Horn land, unpenned of wire, unspoiled by railway, dam or ditch, un-kodaked, hunters, Red and White, exterminated, for robes and tongues, the last great herds of Buffalo on this continent. With crude home-made Cameras, from saddle and in log shack, I saved something – built better than I knew.” [2]

Killing Cows and Spikes on the Snow, near Cohagen, 1880.
MHS Photo Archives Catalog # 981-699 

When he arrived at Fort Keogh for work in the winter of 1879/1880, L.A. Huffman set up shop in the log cabin provided to him in lieu of a paycheck and quickly established himself as a participant, not just an observer, of life on the short-grass plains. And by doing so, he understood the beauty, along with the hardships, of living in this vast, remote land.

Corner of my old log studio at Fort Keogh, 1879.
MHS Photo Archives Catalog # 981-139.

“From where I lay, through the wide-open door, I looked long at those eternal, turreted, cold, moonlit Western hills; outlined against them stood, saddled and picketed, sentinel like, the wrangler's gray night horse, listening too to the myriad voices of the night that unfailingly come to the senses once a camp is stilled. I wondered, as I had a thousand times in years that are gone, when, by some dying campfire I drowsed, up-gazing into the always new, yet changeless star-studded, glittering vastness, what the indescribable charm of this life was, that one failed always to put into speech.” [3]

But, he didn’t need to speak his observations, he had a camera to record those. In addition to his great skill in doing so, though, he was a prolific writer, corresponding frequently with his father; taking copious notes to go along with his photographic output; and publishing articles, such as this one for Scribner's Magazine.

When he wrote to his father, who was a photographer himself, Huffman often included samples of his work. “Please notice when you get the specimens that they were made with the lens wide open and many of the best exposed when my horse was in motion.” [4]

Roping a wild horse, 1904.
MHS Photo Archives Catalog # 981-505.
Bucked Off, [1879-1903].
MHS Photo Archives Catalog # 981-583

Not only was he in the saddle of a horse juggling heavy photographic equipment, he was able to capture cowboys in the midst of their fast-moving physical feats: at the moment a rope swirls just over the head of a horse before dropping around it; or, just as a bronco in mid-buck releases its rider. Even in those situations that appear staid, there is a sense of movement, of something more about to happen. It’s ironic that he signed letters to his father, Late (short for Laton) as he seemed to have perfect timing when it came to his photography. He was patient enough to capture and document those activities which required good timing themselves. He wasn’t often late.

“I am as ever Late” from MHS Archives Small Collection 1702, Box 1

You can browse the Montana Historical Society Photo Archives’ L.A. Huffman images on the Montana Memory Project.

[1] L.A. Huffman: Pioneer Photographer. intro. by Donna M. Forbes, essay by Terry Karson. (Billings, MT: Yellowstone Art Museum, 1990), 3. 
[2] Copy of catalog brochure. L.A. Huffman MHS vertical file. 
[3] L. A. Huffman. “The Last Busting at the Bow-Gun.” Scribner’s Magazine 42 (1907): 78.
[4] L.A. Huffman to P.C. Huffman. 7 June 1885. Small Collection 1702, Folder 1. L.A. Huffman Papers. Montana Historical Society Archives. 

Allen, Gene and Bev. The Collotypes of L.A. Huffman: Montana Frontier Photographer. Helena, MT: Gene and Bev Allen, 2014. 
Brown, Mark H. and W. R. Felton. Before Barbed Wire: L. A. Huffman, Photographer on Horseback. 1st ed. New York: Holt, 1956. 
Brown, Mark H. and W. R. Felton. The Frontier Years: L. A. Huffman, Photographer of the Plains. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1995. 
Huffman, L.A. “The Last Busting at the Bow-Gun.” Scribner’s Magazine 42 (1907): 75-87. 
L. A. Huffman: Pioneer Photographer. Intro. By Donna M. Forbes. Essay by Terry Karson. Billings, MT: Yellowstone Art Museum, 1990.
Peterson, Larry Len. L.A. Huffman: Photographer of the American West. 2nd ed. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2013.