Encampment, Wyoming: Selections from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive, 1899-1948 is an interesting document of social life from the titular town over the first half of the Twentieth Century. It received a ton of press at time of publication, and I have passing interest in archives owing to some graduate study during my time at Stony Brook, but I really picked it up because I had an addiction that I’ve since kicked….
I unboxed this book a long time ago… The video shows an early attempt that lead directly to the new format, and might therefore be of particular interest to some. I bought so many books over such a short period of time that I have a few hundred unboxing films published to YouTube for books that I haven’t yet looked at (beyond the unboxing). At one review/book per week (and in 2023, more like one a quarter), it’s going to be years before I get through them all, assuming my interest keeps up, and I have one or two unboxings per week scheduled to go live into October of 2024….
Encampment, Wyoming rose to the top of the Next Up list thanks to Evidence, the classic photobook from Mike Mandel and Larry Summers. My silly take on Evidence critiqued it in terms of Ariella Azoulay’s conception of archives as tools of Empire (and photography as Imperial Violence), and so into my books of pictures from archives I went…. I started this review—and one on Taryn Simon’s The Color of a Flea’s Eye—within a week of publishing the Evidence review, and it’s all so long ago that I’ve really forgotten all about it.
I wonder what Azoulay would make of Encampment, Wyoming? It doesn’t seem to conform to her reading of archives, at least as far as I’ve gathered in my limited reading of Potential Histories. I found an essay specifically on archives, and particularly, partially, on Derrida’s “Archive Fever,” which may have some relevance, not that it matters, and having read a fair amount, no, it has little or no relevance….
Lora Webb Nichols was a struggling professional photographer in the titular town off an on for about 50 years back in the early 1900s, and as such, everyone around knew she took pictures. People invited her, paid her to make their photographs, happily posed for her photographs, etc. Webb Nichols was self employed, and built her business partly out of her interest, and mostly to try and feed her family after her first husband passed away and after her second husband proved himself incapable of maintaining his family. At no point was Webb Nichols employed by a government agency; in later years, she was an Ansco and Kodak distributor, and so, maybe I could wiggle my way into Corporate Violence, but I’m doubtful of that, even, and I’m fairly sure there was nothing in the way of Imperial Violence, Imperial Shuttering, in her work. And, again, I’m sure I misread and misremember Azoulay.
And, again, none of that matters, really. The pictures themselves are interesting. The book includes 115 or so pictures that Hill selected from the archive of over 25,000, and largely focuses on people, as you might expect. The clothing is a bit different, but the faces and stances and all are quite familiar. The most interesting pictures, on my view, are the still life-type images: two pictures of bouquets on a table, with a white paper backdrop propped up behind them hint at a simple love of photography that went beyond just money making; one picture of a rather sad looking Christmas Tree looks like a scene out of a movie or something, and the blurred bits around the edges adds a sense of nostalgia or something that couldn’t have been there when the image was made, and can’t be there now, given that I’ve never seen a tree of that size and shape, mostly decorated with balloons. All in all, Encampment, Wyoming is an interesting document, and I don’t know how often I’ll return to it. Webb Nichols clearly knew what she was doing, and I could learn something about posing people and capturing moments, maybe, but I probably won’t.
Overall, Encampment, Wyoming rates a solid, hesitantly recommended 4 stars.
At time of writing, first edition copies remain available direct from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive: do not pay the ludicrously inflated used prices you might find on the Jungle site or elsewhere. The website itself is a good thing to check out in and of itself, if you’re interested in seeing more pictures—including some clear outtakes, or shots made on the same day in the same place of the same subject as one in the book—made by Webb Nichols of that part of the world at that time, and touching on places and subjects that didn’t make it into the book. I still don’t have a clue what Azoulay might say about this particular archive… If you know—or if you are Azoulay—comment below, call me an idiot, and lecture me on close reading or something….