Lora Webb Nichols – an astonishing archive
A remarkable collection of 24,000 images by Lora Webb Nichols offers a window into life on the Wyoming frontier in the early 20th century.
An astonishing archive of work by Lora Webb Nichols offers a unique insight into life on the Wyoming frontier.
The 24,000 image collection chronicles domestic, social, and economic life in Encampment, Wyoming, in the early 20th century.
Now, thanks to the volunteer efforts of Nancy and Victor Anderson and Nicole Jean Hill, it is gaining worldwide recognition.
“Lora’s life and work represents a unique narrative in terms of the history of photography and the history of women in photography,” says Hill who curates the website of Nichols’ work.
“If you think of Julia Margaret Cameron or a lot of the artists, they’re usually talked about as being the wives of wealthy men who had a lot of free time on their hands and disposable income. So they had the time and money to devote to photography.
“I think about all the history photo books that I used as a student of photography and there is always the little sidebar section on women photographers and it’s a very narrow scope.
“Lora is so different. She actually was bringing in money as a photographer, almost right away.
“She was bringing in a substantial amount of money for the era by 1906 or 1909, making as much money as a miner as a comparison.”
Lora Webb Nichols
Lora Webb Nichols received her first camera in 1899 at the age of 16.
Her earliest photographs are of her immediate family, self-portraits and landscape images of cultivation.
The young Nichols also photographed miners, industrial infrastructure and a small town’s adjustment to a sudden, but ultimately fleeting, population increase.
As early as 1906, Nichols was working for hire as a photographer for industrial documentation and family portraits.
She developed and printed her images from a darkroom fashioned in the home she shared with her husband and their children.
After the collapse of the copper industry, Nichols remained in Encampment.
She established the Rocky Mountain Studio, a photography and photofinishing service, to help support her family.
Her commercial studio was a focal point of the town throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
An archive in technological limbo
Hill first became aware of Nichols back in 2012 when she was on an artist residency in Saratoga, Wyoming.
During her trip she heard about the nearby Grand Encampment Museum which held a collection of 24,000 of Nichols’ images.
When she found herself in Wyoming again a year later she made an appointment to visit the museum.
However she soon realised the images were not available for public view.
“They were in this strange technological limbo,” she says.
“The negatives were in freezers and packed away. They had been scanned in the 1990s but the technology hadn’t been updated.”
During her visit Hill met Nancy Anderson, a friend of Nichols who had preserved her astonishing archive of negatives.
Anderson was keen to see the images made more accessible. However, she and husband Vincent were stuck after completing the initial scanning in 1999.
She asked if there was anything Hill could do to help.
“I actually got involved before I knew what was in the archive,” says Hill.
“I just knew it was going to be interesting, no matter what I would eventually find which took until about 2015.”
First look at an incredible archive
Two years after starting the project, Hills was able to properly view the images for the first time.
While she had ‘little hints’ while uploading them to the cloud this marked the first time she could look at the collection in detail.
“I went and sat through and looked at them all in one day. It took about 10 hours and I just absorbed it.
“The thing that made it really striking was that I had read Lora’s diaries in the meantime. So I had all of this other information.
“And then to see how it looked in pictures and things that were parallel, and then where those emotions and things diverge was interesting. It was a unique experience.”
In 2016, Hill published her website highlighting Nichols’ work.
A subsequent TV show airing on local PBS channels explored the importance of the archive.
From then on, Hills describes ‘trickles of interest’ from local news sites.
At the end of 2020 the full collection was made available to view on the American Heritage Center website.
However, it was the publication of a photobook of Nichols’ work in January 2021 that brought international attention.
The first two print runs of Encampment, Wyoming: Selections from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive 1899-1948 sold out.
A third run is now available in Europe. Click here to order your copy.
“I think the fact that the book was published in Amsterdam and it was actually released in Europe defined the trajectory,” says Hill.
“It’s only just now that people in Wyoming are starting to see it and hear about it.
“It was really popular in France last spring and I could not get press on it in Wyoming no matter how hard I tried. It just didn’t gain traction but now it is slowly moved westward.”
‘So much else to unpack’
Now that the world knows about Nichols, Hill describes the reaction as ‘amazing’.
“What’s interested me is the different ways that people have interacted with the archive.
“For example, a lot of fashion historians have been really interested. They’ve been doing research on the clothes that some of the people are wearing, finding the patterns that would have been used to make those clothes and then comparing those pictures to other pictures of the fashion at the time.
“Of course, there’s pictures from the flu pandemic of 1919. And so that has taken on a whole new sort of historical interest at this contemporary moment.”
Hills is keen to point out that the book, which has received the most attention, contains just 115 pictures from Nichols’ archive.
“I want people to know is there are tonnes of other pictures in there to explore.
“My big interest is the representation of girls and women in the archive, which is one of the things I focused on quite a bit for the book. But there’s just so much else to unpack.”
Spanning genres and decades
Astonishingly, the 24,000 preserved archive represents Nichols’ personal work.
Her extensive commercial work could be almost anywhere, or lost entirely.
“It’s kind of amazing to think of the way she was involved in the medium,” says Hill. “And it’s over the course of several decades.
“The history of photography is told in this really sort of siloed way. We talk about fine art photography and social documentary and vernacular photography.
“I think that way of talking about photography also sort of genders it.
“I guess the word that’s used now for someone like Lora is community photographer. A photographer involved in communities on all these levels, from the personal level to the portrait to industry.
“Looking at something that spans different genres is really important.
“And then also because she was doing something that isn’t in that preordained narrative we hear about with women in photography.”
How to view the Lora Webb Nichols archive
To find out more about Lora Webb Nichols visit lorawebbnichols.org.
The entire 24,000 image collection is available to view at the American Heritage Center (AHC) of the University of Wyoming.
View the searchable online database here.
Nichols’ photographs, diaries, and letters are available to view at the Grand Encampment Museum, Wyoming.
An exhibition of selected works will be available to view in Europe later this year.
Lora Webb Nichols: Photographs Made, Photographs Collected is on at the Hungarian House of Photography Project Space, Budapest, from April 27 to June 5.
Any galleries interested in hosting a selection from the archive can contact Hill via the website.