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Western Wanderings.

Lady with camera

* PRAIRIE COUNTY, MONTANA-Terry, Montana, Sits on the eastern edge of the state, where, on a map, town names huddle with dogged hopefulness against the surrounding blank space. In Terry you can stay in the milk white Kempton Hotel and visit the former State Bank of Terry, now the Prairie County Museum. Still, it is the kind of Western town where you are always aware of the wide world that starts where the streets end: the Yellowstone River with its green embroidery of cottonwoods, the sculpted badlands behind it, and then the Montana horizon and sky. Town, river, badlands, and sky make up what I have come to think of as Cameron country, for the woman who turned this world into art.

"Oh," Ivy Brubaker said to me as we studied one of Evelyn Cameron's photographs, "when you think about her riding around this country on horseback with her big glass negatives.[ldots]

In the annals of the West, there are not two more improbable pioneers than Evelyn Cameron and her husband, Ewen, who arrived in Montana in 1889. They were aristocrats-Ewen from a distinguished but impoverished Scottish family, Evelyn from a wealthy English brood--and they planned to regain Ewen's ancestral fortune by raising poio ponies.

The polo pony scheme did not thrive, and yet something lasting came of it. The Camerons invited a wealthy Irishman to their ranch, hoping he would invest. He demurred, but he did show Evelyn how to use a camera. Starting with a Kodak Number 5 Kodet and eventually moving up to a Graflex, Evelyn took thoughtful aim at her new world. She photographed cattle-punching and sheep-shearing on neighboring ranches. She photographed hunting trips and ice cream socials, the raw new streets of Terry, the wide prairies and surreal badlands. Cameras and 5-by-7 glass plates were cumbersome; negatives refused to develop in Montana's winter cold. But Cameron's photography turned from hobby to job to something even greater.

That we can still view Cameron's work is its own miracle. Cameron died in 1928; after her death, hundreds of her negatives and prints were stored in a Terry basement until, in the late 1970s, a photo editor named Donna Lucey came upon them. Lucey published a fine book about Cameron-now unfortunately out of print. Lucey's interest inspired the town of Terry to fill the Prairie County Museum with Cameron photographs and memorabilia.

One of the best things about visiting the museum is that, even now, it is possible to meet people whose relatives were photographed by Cameron--people like Ivy Brubaker, now in her 90s, and Joanne Madden, whose great-uncle Nels Undem was a frequent subject. In one photograph Undem stands in his lambing camp, duded up in white shirt, black vest, and tie, holding staff and baby lamb. "Uncle Nels loved to be photographed," Madden says. "I think all the men did. Look at the way they dressed up."

As Cameron would attest, Prairie County has never been an easy place to make a living, and today's Terry residents admit their town has its struggles. "We're down to one restaurant," says Wynona Breen. "One drugstore, one hardware store, one grocery. Just one of each."

"But," adds Joanne Madden, "you feel safe here. It's a good place to live."

That is what Evelyn Cameron believed. Despite financial reversals and her husband's death, she stayed and ranched and photographed. Among her neighbors she became known as Lady Cameron-not mockingly, but in honor of a naturally buoyant spirit. For as Cameron recorded Montana, Montana was changing her. The picture reprinted here (not taken by Cameron, but likely set up by her) seems to capture her truthfully: a woman transported from an expected life to a surprising one, and quietly pleased about the transformation. One of the promises of the American West has always been that it can turn you into something better than you ever dreamed of being. Perhaps that accounts for the bracing power of Cameron's photographs and of her life.
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Title Annotation:photographer Evelyn Cameron
Author:Fish, Peter
Publication:Sunset
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8MT
Date:Jul 1, 2000
Words:664
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