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

(Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT)


Black entertainers on stage with white man
(Maura McCarthy)

After the Northern Pacific Railroad came through Miles City in 1881, traveling troupes could come and go with ease (though sometimes they went broke and had to add performances to raise enough money to move on). The minstrel show pictured here took place inside a tent at Miles City’s Riverside Park. It was–like the “Savages” sign in the previous photograph—part of the town’s Y-Tic-Se-Lim celebration in September 1906.

The carnival organizers promised it would be the “jolliest, ripsnort-iest event of the season.” This show was advertised as “The Old Southern Plantation—Takes you back to the days befo’ de wah’,” and the performance was full of plantation stereotypes that typified 19th-century black minstrel shows. The photograph captures the standard scenario: the performers sit in a semicircle, with “Mr. Tambo” and his tambourine at one end and “Mr. Bones” holding a clapper (or “bones”) at the other. Those two told the funniest jokes, with an upright “Mr. Interlocutor” (or two) in formal attire at the center serving as straight man.

Morrison probably needed several seconds to expose this glass-plate negative inside the tent. The actors, standing stock still, are in perfect focus, but the restless audience in the foreground is blurry, apparently unaware of the camera–except perhaps for the one spectator who turned around, leaving behind a ghostly image of a face.


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