Originally published in Points West magazine in Winter 1998
L.A. Huffman — Documenting the Old West
By Nathan Bender
Formal Housel Curator, McCracken Research Library
Documenting the spirit and culture of the frontier West was the passion of L.A. Huffman. With his 50-pound homemade camera and a horse, he traveled the western range from his base in Miles City, Montana. His ability to capture the cowboy’s daily experience, the dignity of the Plains Indian peoples, and the sheer vastness of the unfenced range have been equaled by few other photographers of any era. As such he is now commonly viewed as the Charlie Russell of western photography.
Through a purchase-donation agreement, the McCracken Research Library added the L.A. Huffman Studio Collection to its holdings in the late 1990s. This is a research collection of incredible significance that consists of over 2,200 letters, 1,075 photographs, and a variety of artifacts from the studio of frontier photographer L.A. Huffman. Until recently, this collection had remained in the original Huffman house in Miles City. It was purchased by antiquarian dealer Thomas Minckler of Billings, Montana. In his care the original photographic prints were cataloged and manuscript correspondence carefully transcribed. Minckler also added original Huffman photographs to the collection from other sources when possible.
The high artistic quality of Huffman’s pictures is evident even to persons who know little about photography. His images can reach out and grab the interest of a viewer. The particular images within our collection contain a high percentage of original prints made by Huffman himself directly from his original glass plates. These are quite valuable and rare. The artifacts from the Huffman studio include pens and inks used to title and hand color his prints, a Plains Indian buckskin doll used as a studio prop, his glasses, a studio chair, and two trunks, among other items.
Laton Alton Huffman (1854 – 1951) was born in Iowa and learned the craft of photography from his father. In the summer of 1878 he apprenticed at Moorhead, Minnesota, with the later famous Yellowstone Park photographer F. Jay Haynes. By December 1878 Huffman obtained his first professional appointment as a civilian post photographer at Fort Keogh, Montana Territory, near Miles City. This position gave him his start on what turned out to be a lifetime project, that of photographing eastern Montana and northern Wyoming during the last two decades of the western frontier.
Most of Huffman’s pictures were taken out on the range, where he carried his cameras on horseback, along with the chemicals and glass plates needed to create permanent images. This mobility distinguished him from a mere studio photographer and enabled him to capture authentic action photographs. His studies of ranch life, cattle drives wild horse roundups, herds of sheep, and other facets of western ranching came to influence other photographers who followed in his footsteps.
Huffman became well acquainted with the Northern Plains Indians, and in particular with the Northern Cheyenne. Sometimes he managed to obtain portraits of Native Americans visiting at Fort Keogh and sometimes he traveled out to meet them at their villages. Prominent among his Cheyenne friends and acquaintances were Two Moons, American Horse, and Young Plenty Bird. As for his pictures of the ranchmen, his photographs of American Indians went beyond portraiture to include scenes of family life and traditional activities.
In 1882 he traveled to Yellowstone National Park and with a stereoscopic camera took a series of images of geological wonders. Appreciative of his environment, he included landscapes and wild animals among his specialties. His pictures of the last of the buffalo in Montana Territory, both alive and as being shot and skinned by professional hunters, are the only ones of their kind, as later photographers simply were not able to recreate pictures of the buffalo hide hunting business. Watching the destruction of the herds may have also kindled in him an interest in wildlife conservation, as he later become good friends with William T. Hornaday, orator of the New York Zoological Park and founder of the American Bison Society. Within the Huffman collection, much correspondence exists between these two men.
In the early 1880s Huffman left Fort Keogh and established his own business in Miles City in a studio he built from lumber salvaged from a steamboat. By 1885 he was using a single-lens glass-plate camera that he constructed from parts ordered from a catalog and built himself. He operated this first Miles City studio until 1890. For the next few years he traveled within the United States, then returned to Montana and was elected to the Montana House of Representatives for Custer County m 1893. In 1896 he opened a studio in Billings, ran it there for a few years, then closed it to reopen a new studio in Miles City. Huffman shifted his emphasis from new photography and largely concentrated on selling prints made from his stockpile of glass plate negatives after about 1905.
An important aspect of Huffman’s life is that he was accepted and well-liked by frontier leaders and other men of influence. His list of associates reads like a Who’s Who of the region. Names of people he knew and often corresponded with include George Shields (editor of The American Field magazine), Yellowstone Kelly (YNP’s first park ranger), anthropologist George Bird Grinnell, poet Badger Clark, Montana’s political father Granville Stuart, and writer Hamlin Garland. The correspondence that accumulated from these people went beyond business matters and documents. An untapped historical treasure trove, these letters show how Huffman participated in the settling of the West and his interaction with other leaders of the era. To our knowledge this is the most extensive collection of Huffman letters ever assembled, enough to keep several historians busy for many years.