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244: Archive of Miles City, MT Photographer R.Morrison

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Photographic Archive of Miles City, Montana Photographer, R.C. Morrison, 1880s-1890s

Cowan's is proud to present the photographic archive of pioneer Montana photographer Robert C. Morrison (1850-1938), descended directly in the family of the photographer and available for sale for the first time. R.C. Morrison arrived in Miles City, Montana, in 1878, when it was a tiny sutler's outpost serving General Miles' Ft. Keogh, and remained there until his death sixty years later. Originally a sign painter, he found a new creative outlet in photography, and over those sixty years managed to photograph just about everything subject available to him. He operated a professional studio ca 1880s-1990s, making him a contemporary of classic Western photographers L.A. Huffman and Christian Barthelmess, but much of his work seems to have been purely for his own enjoyment. Morrison was an eccentric fellow with an eye for the unusual, and you can sense an almost childlike enthusiasm for his work, evidenced by offbeat subject matter and experimentation in a time when photography was viewed by most as a serious and scientific endeavor. What really distinguishes the collection, though, is the setting; located at the intersection of army, Indian, pioneer, and cowboy culture, Miles City embodied everything about the American West, and Morrison was there to capture it from its rugged infancy until long after the railroads, reservations, and barbed wire had erased all notions of the frontier.

With the exception of the collection presented here, R.C. Morrison's heirs have donated his entire collection (including 3,600 glass negatives) to the Montana Historical Society. Several of these images were made available to the public for the first time in a feature by Donna Lucey, published October 5, 2009. This exclusivity, combined with the diverse subject matter, Morrison's unusual style, and his relationship with some of the giants of Western photography, make this a truly unique opportunity.

The archive contains over 1,700 photographs, plus related materials. About half of the photographs are duplicates, varying somewhat in clarity, condition, and mount, and roughly 10% by other photographers. The contents are summarized later in this description, and fully accounted for in a spreadsheet available upon request.

What we know about R.C. Morrison is limited. His photographs give us a rough sketch of his life from the time he arrived in Miles City at age 28, but with little context. It is not clear if he was a participant in, or merely an observer of the varied events he photographed, nor is it always clear which photographs were taken for profit and which for hobby. The documents included in the archive are primarily business related, either inquiries about Morrison's sign painting business or correspondence regarding cameras and other photographic equipment. Most of what we know comes from Morrison's direct descendants, who provided us with family history recorded by Morrison's daughter and granddaughter.

Morrison was born in Pennsylvania in 1850 and the family believes he lived there into his young adulthood, when he decided to make the journey west. For reasons unknown, and without any particular destination, he left the East for good around 1874. Some time later, he ended up in Denver where he joined the Diamond R cattle drive as a cook, following the beef north through Wyoming, Western Nebraska, and the Badlands, earning extra money by painting signs for businesses that had sprung up around the forts and mines along the trails. One of these outposts was Fort Keogh, hastily constructed by General Nelson Miles on a barren plain along the Yellowstone River in response to the Cheyenne victory over Custer in 1876. It was especially remote, and the young men stationed there were easy targets for entrepreneurs who soon came peddling booze and women, setting up shop just outside the gates. "Miles City," so named either in honor of or in satire of the general, who despised its effect on his soldiers, quickly proved to be the natural northern terminus of the cattle drives, offering much needed entertainment for lonely, weary cattle hands such as R.C. Morrison. He homesteaded along the North Sunday Creek in 1878, alone, spending the next few years hunting buffalo, painting, and practicing wet-plate photography. He mostly kept to himself, but did seek out guidance from local photographers, likely including Huffman and Barthelmess, and made efforts to befriend local Crow and Cheyenne in pursuit of their hunting and trapping secrets. And, consequently, he was often summoned for his own hunting prowess. It is even reported in a Miles City history book available at the Range Riders Museum (which is today operated by a descendant of Barthelmess) that Morrison acted as a guide for Theodore Roosevelt when he was in the area in the 1880s, and was recognized by him when the former president visited again ca 1912. Sometime between 1882 and 1885, he married 17-year-old Canadian orphan Mary Jane Lane, moved into town, and purchased a small photography studio, determined to provide for his children. The couple had three - Gladys, Clee, and Glenn - and through them R.C. seemed to overcome his antisocial, isolationist bent. He was an active citizen of Miles City in the 1890s, operating both a sign painting business and a photography studio. He held a reputation as an expert hunter and trapper, and even played violin with the Miles City opera.

But things would change. Mary Jane divorced R.C. and married William Reed, a successful tin shop owner nearly half his age who would later become mayor of Miles City. This apparently led Morrison back to his solitary ways, spending days at a time on the range, and when his only son Glenn, a firefighter, was killed in a stable fire in 1915, R.C. Morrison went back out into the wild. Morrison's photographs as an older man support this account. Almost all are taken in remote locations or show Morrison hunting with his dog Monte (sometimes with up to 30 skins at a single camp). The exceptions are photographs of an aged Morrison at Miles City celebrations, such as the Pioneer Days festival, ca 1920-30s, probably taken by his daughters. In these, he appears as a true mountain man, sporting a long gray beard, handmade clothing, and his trusty Sharps rifle, as children look on in wonder as if he was a storybook character come to life Morrison wears a smile not often seen in photographs of his younger self, and seems to revel in the role. (find newspaper clipping calling him Miles City's longest tenured resident).

Morrison and His Relationship to Huffman and Barthelmess (1854-1906).

There is no written record of the relationship between Morrison and his more famous contemporaries, L.A. Huffman and Christian Barthelmess, but the archive provides evidence that their must have been a brotherhood of sorts among the few early lensmen of Miles City. The three surely would have met in passing, the population hovered around 1,000 until the turn-of-the-century, but signs point to a mutual respect between the photographers, and even a trading of negatives. Some of the earliest photographs of R.C. Morrison included in this archive, including his wedding photographs, were taken at Huffman's studio, and he and his family were photographed by Huffman even after Morrison opened his own studio. Similarly, Barthelmess family members appear in a handful of Morrison's portraits. When Christian Barthelmess was killed digging a sewer trench in 1906, it was Morrison who took his postmortem photographs (viewable in the Smithsonian article, but not included in this archive), and, just recently, several hundred of army photographer's negatives have been identified in the Morrison collection at the MHS, suggesting a deeper relationship between the two men and their families.

By viewing just a small sample of the photography of Huffman and Barthelmess, it is quite clear that both had a firm sense of the historical and artistic value their work would one day claim. Barthelmess was fascinated by military life, and certainly understood his Indian photographs were important documentation of a vanishing native culture. Many of Huffman's shots of the round-ups on the open range seem like a wide angle view of a Frederic Remington painting, capturing the essence of an era in a single expansive view so perfect that one wonders if it was contrived. They obviously weren't, and the fact that Huffman chose just a couple dozen of his thousands of negatives to publish and sell in his Miles City gallery prove that they resulted from patience, persistence, and discrimination. Morrison seems to have shot whatever interested him at the moment, with no artistic mission guiding his eye. In our opinion, this was his greatest asset. While Huffman and Barthelmess provide us with an idealized, sometimes poignant view of life on the range, Morrison's photographs show life as it was.

And while he may not have possessed a deliberate artistic vision, a distinct style certainly emerged. Morrison couldn't just point-and-shoot, of course, and equipment was costly. The fact he spent his time and money on shots that had little commercial appeal, and often included unusual subjects, causes one to contemplate each photograph a little further.

The archive is comprised as follows:

900+ albumen cabinet cards, mostly studio portraits, on a variety of R.C. Morrison mounts, and many with the name of the subject inscribed on verso.

300+ larger albumen prints, most 5 x 7 in. or 6 x 8 in., on 8 x 10 in. or 10 x 12 in. mounts, of subjects including cowboys, Indians, soldiers, Miles City street scenes, the construction of two bridges, and much more.

200+ miscellaneous photographs, including tintypes, mounted prints by other photographers, and early 20th century mounted and unmounted silver prints.

150+ miscellaneous documents, letters, receipts, advertisements and other ephemera, including: an 1884 land grant and an 1888 bill of indenture, both named to Jean Lane, a relative of Morrison's wife, described in the indenture as a Half-breed from Manitoba; a brand book; plans for Morrison's studio; and a rare printed piece from early Fort Keogh photographer John Fouch.

Four cameras, including a No. 1 Panoram-Kodak Model D, and early Eastman camera with 1884 patent, a Snappa camera, and a large unmarked camera.

Ten glass negatives, including a fine 5 x 8 in. negative of a group of firemen drinking and playing poker.

Buyer's Premium

20% up to 200,000
15% above 200,001

Estimate $30,000 – $50,000
Starting Bid $15,000

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7:00 AM - Jun 21, 2012
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