Photographer Robert Morrison’s Montana
The artist’s eye for the off-kilter and unusual offers a distinctive portrait of the West at the turn of the 20th century
- By Donna M. Lucey
- Smithsonian.com, October 05, 2009
(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)
In 1878, 28-year-old Robert C. Morrison drifted from the East to Miles City, Montana, an oasis of barrooms, brothels and gambling dens in the hauntingly beautiful and remote plains and badlands of southeastern Montana. The place had begun as a watering hole for wandering buffalo hunters and the soldiers at nearby Fort Keogh; eventually cowboys, sheepherders, railroad workers and a cast of eccentric Britons would join in the fun.
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.
“Jones shack along the Yellowstone” is the only identification of this photo, written by an unknown hand. Why did Morrison frame the boat as if it were marooned on the dry-as-toast plains? (He composed all his pictures carefully: the glass-plate negatives he used were fragile and expensive, and they required long exposure times.) The image captures the loneliness of homesteads once inhabited by hopeful pioneers. You can still see them along the Yellowstone River—abandoned and empty, relics of someone’s busted dream of turning the semi-arid land into a profitable farm or ranch.
Miles City lies on the south bank of the Yellowstone River, as does the Northern Pacific Railroad, which arrived in 1881. For those who settled north of the river, isolation was a given. For an instance, an Englishwoman named Evelyn Cameron—another glass-plate photographer of extraordinary talent—moved in 1902 with her husband to a log cabin some 40 miles northeast of Miles City, near Terry, Montana. Their ranch was, “shut in on two sides by the river & badlands,” she wrote her sister. To get their mail and supplies, “we have to ride or drive 28 miles & cross the Yellowstone by a ferry boat in summer & on ice in winter.... [E]verything down to the smallest tin tack has had to be hauled from Terry (14 miles), taken across a rapid river (1050 feet wide), the latter part of the way without any road.”
Thus a dingy could be considered an essential piece of ranch equipment—even if there’s not a drop of water in sight.