A Woman’s Intimate Record of Wyoming in the Early Twentieth Century

Nichols produced wildly striking images from the moment she picked up her camera. One of her first subjects was her sister Lizzie (who used a crutch after a serious fall as a child) in front of their log-cabin home from a monumentalizing low angle. A young woman, likely Lora and Lizzie’s cousin Carrie, stands behind Lizzie, in the shadowy doorway, creating depth of field that pulls the viewer’s eye horizontally as well. That same year, experimenting with double-exposure and self-portraiture techniques, Lora captured herself dressed as a boy and playing a banjo, while also appearing as a spectral woman in full skirts and apron hopping onto her own lap, interrupting the air of self-seriousness. In another remarkable early image, under a blazing, evenly lit sky, a little girl twists away from the camera to face her small dog, Button, and raises a pointed finger at him: “Stay!” (not unlike the command a photographer issues her subject). The dog obeys, but with a slight, charming breach: he turns his muzzle just a bit, and gazes somewhere else, beyond the reach of Nichols’s lens.

Lizzie Nichols at Willow Glen, 1899.

Nichols’s images from the first half of her life often depict what Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, a historian of the nineteenth century, termed “the female world of love and ritual,” a domestic sphere of deep bonds between women. Nichols’s friend Nora Fleming nurses her baby in the sun, her breast peeking out from a built-in flap in the bodice of her high-necked dress; to get the shot, Nichols positions herself close to the pair while Nora flashes her eyes mischievously at the camera. In another stunningly intimate image, Mary Anderson bends slightly at the waist to comb out her nearly ankle-length hair, presumably preparing to wind it back up and away from public view, per the custom of the day. Here and elsewhere, Nichols shows an intuitive sense of gesture and balance. In an image from 1913, Lizzie stands with her back to the camera, the land stretching in front of her. She gracefully kicks out her right hip for her pet cat, who has clearly just climbed up the length of her body to reach a treat that she holds delicately in her fingers at the end of a dancerly, vertical port de bras. The weight of her body rests on the crutch nestled in her left armpit. What could be a precarious moment feels almost implausibly solid inside the frame that Nichols has crafted.

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