Portrayals of the American West12/02/2021 10:31AM ● By Deb Olsen
"Travois," by Roland Reed | Courtesy of Jace Romick Gallery
Possibly for the first time, the works of five legendary photographers – Roland Reed, Edward Curtis, A.G. and Augusta Wallihan and L.A. Huffman – are being exhibited together this winter at the Steamboat Art Museum, aka SAM.
Each of these photographers has an amazing story.
Roland Reed’s admiration for indigenous people began when he was child living near an Indian trail in Wisconsin. Throughout his life, he traveled from Alaska to Minnesota, from Montana to Colorado, and from California to Arizona as an explorer, artist and photographer. At one point, he went to live with the Ojibwe for two years to undertake his “long-deferred campaign in portraying the North American Indian,” as he later wrote.
Augusta and A.G. Wallihan were filled with similar determination. Concerned that rampant, reckless hunting in the West would soon eradicate multiple species, they began photographing them for posterity. And that is how Lay, a sleepy little town 20 minutes west of Craig, became the birthplace of wildlife photography in America.
Legend has it that Augusta, who had come to Northwest Colorado to live with her brother after a failed marriage, was snowbound in a cabin in Lay with her brother’s business partner, A.G., who was 20-plus years her junior. To avoid scandal, the two decided to marry, and thus began a lifelong adventure as pioneers, hunters and photographers.One image of Augusta, entitled “Grocery Shopping,” shows her with an ammo belt around the waist of her prairie dress, a bonnet on her head, a Remington rifle in one hand and a skinning knife in the other, standing over a mule-deer buck. Augusta was a crack shot and expert hunter who once wrote that, over time, she had dropped 31 deer with her Remington, “only wounding three and losing none.”
The buckskin gloves she wore in that image could have been the very ones she and A.G. traded to a passing missionary for a camera, which they then taught themselves to use.
In those days, it wasn’t a matter of loading film into a camera, but of hand-coating glass plates with light-sensitive material, delicately placing them into a light-blocking container and loading that into the back of a view camera.
The couple’s photographic talent, along with Augusta’s hunting skills, brought them to the attention of Rough Rider Teddy Roosevelt, who invited them to the White House. He also paved the way for them to present their work at the 1900 Paris Exposition, where they received critical acclaim.
Edward Curtis, who also worked around the turn of 19th century, is known internationally as the photographer whose imagery epitomizes the indigenous people of the Old West. Curtis left school in the sixth grade and built his own camera. When he was 27, he shot his first portrait of a Native American woman, and so began his lifetime endeavor to document Native American traditional life before it disappeared. Curtis worked with a number of photographic processes, ranging from rotogravures – an intaglio printing process using a rotary press – to goldtone, platinum and silver gelatin prints.
During the same era, L.A. Huffman was chronicling life in the last two decades of the Montana frontier. Dubbed the “Charlie Russell of Western photography,” he shot Yellowstone’s geological marvels, ranchers, wild horses, herds of sheep, landscapes, Northern Plains Indians and the last of the buffalo in Montana territory. Watching the destruction of the herds may have also kindled his interest in wildlife conservation.
The synergy that brought this display together is remarkable. “The thing I love about this exhibit is that it’s a regional collaboration,” says Betse Grassby, SAM’s executive director.
Jace Romick, owner of the Jace Romick Gallery on Eighth Street in Steamboat Springs, is a renowned Western photographer in his own right. His excitement for historic imagery led him to the work of Roland Reed, and ultimately to acquiring much of the collection of Reed’s glass plates and other relics – a significant acquisition.
“The Reed prints are of the highest quality. They will blow people away,” says Rod Hanna, president of SAM’s board of directors and curator of the exhibit.
The Museum of Northwest Colorado lent SAM works from its collection of more than 400 Wallihan glass plates, one of which is an early image of Steamboat.
The Tread of Pioneers Museum in Steamboat also made a noteworthy contribution to the exhibit. One of Routt County’s pioneer families, the Ferry Carpenter family, bequeathed a collection of Curtis photogravures to the museum. Some of them will be featured in the SAM exhibit, along with Curtis prints from other local collectors.
The late Doug Kenyon, who was a Steamboat resident, had acquired a collection of contact prints from the Huffman family collection, and his daughter Christine has arranged for SAM to display a select group of reproductions of them in this exhibit.
“Portrayals of the American West” opens Friday, Dec. 3, and runs through Saturday, April 2. For more information, visit SteamboatArtMuseum.org.