At the turn of the 20th century the town of Encampment, Wyoming, exploded in size after a sheepherder discovered copper.

Ten years after that 1897 discovery the copper mines closed due to poor management and the boom was done.

The town’s rise and fall, and additional bright moments and misfortunes of the era, were captured by an entrepreneurial photographer with a poet’s soul — Lora Webb Nichols. Given a camera by her teenage sweetheart in 1899, Nichols documented the people of Encampment with artistic skill and an eye for truth.

A tiny selection of her vast archive hangs through March 31 at Teton County Library, “Lora Webb Nichols: Photographs Made, Photographs Collected 1899-1942,” most of the pictures made by Nichols herself, with a few taken by fellow townspeople.

Nichols’ life and work were documented in the 2012 book “Encampment, Wyoming: Selections from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive, 1899-1948.” The book, included in the exhibit, was written by photographer Nicole Jean Hill after she discovered a collection of Nichols’ negatives preserved in a freezer by Nancy Anderson of the Grand Encampment Museum.

Hill, who curated the Teton County Library exhibit, spent years connecting with Nichols through her diaries and the 24,000 photographs she took throughout her life.

Leah Shlachter, the adult program coordinator for Teton County Library, was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to Jackson.

“The photos speak for themselves,” she said. “If someone showed up knowing nothing about Nichols or Encampment, Wyoming, the intimacy, tenderness and humor Nichols captures in her photos are obvious and instantly alluring. The emotions she reveals of people living in the boom-bust copper industry are the same emotions we are experiencing today, making these images feel timeless.

“There are examples of a 20th-century selfie and photobomb,” she said, “adding to the contemporary and relatable feel to today’s audience.”

Nichols’ ability to weave together elements of photography and everyday life into fascinating visual narratives is all the more stunning when one considers that she was entirely self-taught. For example, a photograph in the exhibition titled “Mary Anderson, 1911” depicts a woman bending forward to brush the abundant hair that cascades over her head, almost touching the floor. Shadow and light in the folds of her long dark skirt mirror the texture and shine of her hair, creating a composition of depth and complexity belying the relatively mundane scene.

“Who else but a woman would take a photograph like that at the time?” Shlachter said. “It’s mesmerizing.”

Another work in the show titled “Nida Deal, Sis Heaton, Ruth Dunbar, and Nina Platte, 1913” shows four young women (one of them obscured) in dresses as they recline on a blanket and sip tea, all looking at the camera with hard-to-read expressions. One girl’s hand pulls a length of string that originates from behind the camera lens into the depths of the scene. This ingenious element acts as a kind of time-travel device, drawing the viewer into a fleeting moment of the past.

“Encampment, Wyoming: Selections from the Lora Webb Nichols Archive, 1899-1948” is not just a collection of pictures. The show is a glimpse into early 20th-century American culture through the eyes of a female photography pioneer. Nichols documented a flourishing town that would go on to experience the horrors of the Spanish flu and a devastating economic downturn. She captured faces from Wyoming-past that weathered many storms and yet continued to emanate enduring grit and determination that may lend contemporary viewers strength to face challenges of the present. 

“The intimacy, tenderness and humor Nichols captures in her photos are obvious and instantly alluring.” Leah Shlachter teton county library

Contact Lisa Simmons via 732-7078 or entertainment@jhnewsandguide.com.

Since moving to Jackson Hole in 1992, Richard has covered everything from local government and criminal justice to sports and features. He currently concentrates on arts and entertainment, heading up the Scene section.

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