In 1934, Encampment, Wyoming — a hard-working mining town with a population of about 300 — didn’t have many stores but it did have its own thriving Kodak photo studio. Over the years, its proprietor, an ambitious photographer-entrepreneur, not only ran the business, shot family portraits, took assignments from mining companies, and sold cameras, but also owned the local soda fountain, aptly called “The Sugar Bowl.” That photographer’s name was Lora Webb Nichols and she did all of this while single-handedly raising half a dozen children.
In spite of her always-uphill finances (two deadbeat-dreamer husbands and six kids will do that) Nichols was extraordinarily prolific: She received her first camera at 16 and by the time she died in 1962, her archive held an astonishing 24,000 negatives. With stunning pictures that vibrate with intimacy, Nichols documented daily life in her small frontier community, through its booms (copper, logging) and its busts (the Great Depression), on hunting trips and laundry days and lazy afternoons. But beyond their uncommon beauty, Nichols photographs resonate for another reason: They upend our conceptions of the West, the ruggedness of its men, the sweep-the-porch lives of its women.
One hundred and fifteen of these pictures make up the remarkable Encampment, Wyoming, a jewel-like book you almost certainly would have heard about had it not been published by a small press based in the Netherlands (Fw: Books) and directly into the jaws of the pandemic. Exquisitely designed and packaged, masterfully edited by Nicole Jean Hill, and made from negatives painstakingly restored (also Hill’s handiwork), it’s the rare book that feels simultaneously vintage and modern. In fact, it’s hard to believe it actually exists.
A photography professor at Humboldt State University in Northern California and a photographer focusing on the boundary between public and private land, Hill spends a lot of time in Wyoming, Colorado, and other places where people hunt and camp. It was on one of these explorations, in 2012, that she happened upon Lora Webb Nichols’ work. And then she spent the next seven years researching, organizing, and restoring the archive while also creating the book.
Here, Hill looks at six pictures from this magnificent collection.
In the Saddle
The Empire State Building, all 102 stories of it, was completed in 1931, three years before Nichols made this picture just outside of her Rocky Mountain Photo Studio in Encampment, where the streets were dirt, the sidewalks wood, and people still poked around on horseback. Nichols was a community photographer, says Hill, “photographing the high school basketball team and the babies and, in her case, the copper mining industry.” Over decades, she often photographed the same cast of characters, including these two women. That sort of familiarity with her subjects brings a signature quality to her pictures, which, in Hill’s words, hover “in a special space between a family snapshot and formal portrait.” Of course the most unique aspect of this picture is the studio itself. While there were certainly women in the Old West who were accomplished with a camera, Nichols was no dabbler: She took correspondence courses in photography and bookkeeping, and early on built a darkroom in her home. Hill, who by her own admission is no historian, has yet to turn up another photo studio of this scale owned and operated by a woman.
When we think of frontier images of the turn-of-the-century West, we think of men with hats, men with guns, men on horseback. An image you have likely never seen from that period is a close-up of a woman breastfeeding her child, heavy on the skin. This picture, of course, is one that only a woman could have made. But it’s also a picture that only Nichols could have made because when Nichols took this photo, in 1907, she had already been photographing Encampment’s citizens for a decade. They were familiar with her and her camera-ready ways — you can feel their trust on each of the book’s 176 pages — which allowed for piercingly intimate pictures. (Nichols definitely used a Kodak No. 2 camera and likely similar hand-held box set-ups over the course of her career.) What elevates this image to another level is the woman’s expression, which Hill calls “really ambiguous. There’s a part of me that thinks she’s having a moment with Lora and they’re saying, ‘Oh, this is kind of a scandalous picture to take.’ But it could just be they were gossiping about something completely different and they’re just having a really casual moment together.”
What’s less ambiguous is the fact that Nichols chose her angle with intention: “Lora is down low, sitting close,” says Hill. “It’s not an image where the photographer is standing over the subject and you have that dominating vantage point. I think this speaks to that idea of women and of building their community in Wyoming in this era.” The picture also reveals quite a bit about Nichols: “This definitely isn’t a photograph that Lora is making for that woman to frame and put on the mantle,” says Hill. In other words, although money was perpetually tight, and although she knew she couldn’t sell the picture, she made it anyway. So why did she take it? Because she’s a photographer — a photographer who couldn’t not take it.
In Sickness and Health
Half-naked and ravaged by illness, Nichols’ second husband, Guy, lies on an unmade bed bathed in a gauzy light that not only reveals torn wallpaper and a chipped bedframe but also his painfully skinny legs. Without question, this is the book’s most melancholic and ethereal picture. But it’s also another image that overturns our easy conceptions of the rough-and-ready western man. Compositionally, Guy lies bookended by a heart at his head and a cross at his feet as he appears to drift in a fever dream. It might not be surprising that Nichols chose to make this real but less-than-idealized portrait of her husband because, for all of the aspects of her life that were fulfilling, her marriages were not. Her first husband, Bert, an on-again-off-again miner, was not supportive of her photography — ironic, because it was he who gave Nichols her first camera as a courtship gift — and they divorced in 1911. She married Guy, her cousin, in 1914, a man Hill describes as “a total flake,” a schemer and dreamer and would-be bootlegger. It was in the years between these two marriages, Hill says, that Nichols’ photography — and her businesses — really thrived.
“I wasn’t originally going to include this in the book,” says Hill of the picture of three kids dressed up and sitting on the planks of Encampment’s wooden sidewalk in 1930. “It didn’t make the first, second, or third cut. But then I did one of those things where it’s like, ‘Okay, is there anything else I need to make sure that I include,’ and I saw this picture and it just took my breath away.” Nichols made a lot of photos of her own children when they were young but then, says Hill, when they got older, she began making “all these delightful photographs of other kids in the community, so maybe she’s reminiscing a bit.” While this picture has a whiff of easy Norman Rockwell Americana, the eye contact coming from the oldest girl is slightly unnerving. “The gesture of that girl in the center,” says Hill, “the way she’s holding her hair back — and her knees, the way they make that diagonal — really drew me in.”
Brush With Fame
With this restrained image of domestic beauty, Nichols captures another moment that a male photographer would never be privy to. “It’s a picture that you can enter sort of slowly and then see what’s going on more clearly as you dive into those darker parts of the photograph,” says Hill. And when you do enter and your eyes adjust, you see that it’s a tour de force of texture, from the curtains and carpet to the folds of the woman’s skirt to, of course, that waterfall of hair. But perhaps what’s most startling about this picture, which Nichols made in 1911, is just how contemporary it feels. Today, explains Hill, photographers often try to create a moment that “strips away the process of making the picture so that the subject is not being performative in front of the camera, but just themselves. I think that’s what Lora is getting at here.”
In the Wild
In 1939, three years before the artist J. Howard Miller gave us the now-iconic image of a flexing Rosie the Riveter in a red bandana, Nichols made this swaggering photo of a woman named Bea Phillips in the Wyoming wilderness. Standing in a small, scrubby valley with her gleaming belt buckle dead-center in the frame, Phillips looks directly into the camera. There’s nothing demure or aw-shucks about her hips-thrust-forward body language, just, as Hill puts it, “this really sort of mysterious smile on her face.” The gun resting on the antlers is another power move that documents Western women as they were — but not necessarily how we remember them.
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of Life magazine and a contributing editor to Leica Conversations; on Instagram, he’s @billshapiro.
Encampment, Wyoming: Selections from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive, 1899-1948, edited by Nicole Jean Hill, published by Fw: Books, $65, 176 pages. In the US, order the book here; in Europe, here.
For details about the traveling exhibition, click here.