The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron
by Donna M. Lucey; Alfred A. Knopf; 238 pages.
“We have the troubles of Arctic explorers out here but none of the credit,” Evelyn Cameron wrote of her life in eastern Montana at the turn of the century. She and her husband Ewen had left England for the Bad Lands in 1893, planning to raise polo ponies for shipment back home. After several years of financial losses, Ewen was ready to return to England, but Evelyn had discovered that frontier life suited her and she persuaded him to stay on. While he studied and wrote about Montana wildlife, she ran Eve Ranch, making ends meet by selling her photographs to local homesteaders, railroad workers, and cowboys.
After Evelyn Cameron’s death in 1928, her glass-plate negatives gathered dust in a friend’s basement. Donna Lucey learned of her work in 1978 and found, in addition to some eighteen hundred negatives, leather-bound diaries for nearly all of her years in Montana. Together, Lucey writes, they present “perhaps the most complete portrait we have of one woman’s pioneer experience—a virtual home movie of life on the frontier.”
Cameron’s landscapes capture the spectacular buttes and desolate stretches of empty prairie that make up the Bad Lands. She made many fine portraits, including an almost surreal image of Ewen and a mounted trumpeter swan. And she recorded scenes most photographers missed: close-ups of birds and animals in their habitat, intimate views of sheepshearers and herders—laborers on the lowest rung of Montana’s social ladder. All of Cameron’s pictures, beautifully reproduced here, are fascinating as historical documents. The best, as Lucey observes, enter the realm of art.
But what sets this book apart from most others designed to look good on a coffee table is its comprehensive and excellent text, much of it drawn from Cameron’s diaries. Written in a terse, methodical style, the diaries record each day’s weather, chores, meals, books read, letters written, remedies given to ailing animals and friends. Cameron rarely complains, and in fact, she seems to take pride in her rugged existence. “Manual labor … is about all I care about,” she writes a young niece in England, “and after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride & work in a garden. …” A typical diary entry reads, in part: “Arose at 6:50. Fire on. Milked. Breakfast 8:15. … Swept. Washed up. Took setting hen off [eggs] etc. Watered 3 foals. … Carted manure from old corral, took down 6 loads before lunch at 2:15. To work 3. … Worked till 7:45. … I watered foals & had difficulty in getting two into the stable, it was rather dark. … Under the corral manure there ran an inch layer of snow [I] hauled it all away. Sup 8:45. Thin beaten steak, mince, poached eggs, rice, tomatoes, coffee, pears. Washed up. Wrote diary. Ewen was rather put out about the late hour.” Cameron repeated variations of this backbreaking routine winter and summer for thirtyfive years.
From the mountain of detail recorded in the diaries, Lucey has constructed an absorbing account of Evelyn Cameron’s life from her childhood on a country estate south of London to her last years as a widow alone on the ranch. “I wish I could lead a life worthy to look back upon,” a twentyfive-year-old Evelyn writes in one entry. This stunning volume is proof that she succeeded.