Donna M. Lucey is Encyclopedia Virginia‘s new media editor, and she has a wonderful piece on the Smithsonian website right now. Called “Robert Morrison’s Montana,” it presents and annotates a funny, creepy, haunting, sad, and often insightful group of photographs from late-nineteenth-century Montana. They are the work of Robert C. Morrison, who came to Montana in 1878, at the age of twenty-eight.
He had an eye for the off-kilter, the anomalous and the marginalized. At his death, at age 87 in 1938, he left behind more than 3,600 glass-plate negatives, but a disagreement among his heirs left them gathering dust—until now. At the Montana Historical Society, which is printing the negatives, photo archivist Lory Morrow, says she and her staff “talk among ourselves” about Morrison’s unusual vision, which, while “off the mainstream” is also “more realistic” than the work of other photographers from that place and time.
In the photo above, a “freak show of coyote carcasses” sets up in front of the Justice of the Peace’s office in Morrison’s adopted town of Miles City. Lucey writes that
the stilted poses of the coyote carcasses may be attributed to the fact that they were frozen. But what of the men and boy? Are they bounty hunters waiting to cash in? And is the bespectacled gentleman behind the window the justice of the peace, calculating his payout? Or is he sizing up the men, wondering if he could interest them in the fire insurance he apparently sold on the side?
For more of Lucey’s work, read Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age (2007), her book about the marriage between John Armstrong “Who’s Looney Now?” Chaloner and Amélie “The Quick or the Dead?” Rives. (The book comes well reviewed, both in the New York Times and the Washington Post.)
Lucey also is the author of Photographing Montana, 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron, a wonderful book name-checked this summer in the Times. Cameron, like Morrison, was a transplant to Montana, although she came all the way from Britain. How Lucey discovered and came to reproduce her collection of photographs is a tale all its own . . .