Nicole Jean Hill is an artist and accidental archivist
First and foremost, Nicole Jean’s work is brilliant and we speak about it in the beginning of the episode. As an artist she has produced very interesting bodies of work that are separate to her work as an accidental archivist for Lora Webb Nichols. I thoroughly recommend that you do a deep dive into her work after picking up the Nichols book from Fw: Books. her work and the work of Webb Nichols are oddly copacetic with one another and there is something interesting at play in seeing both artists work at the same time for reference.
Lora Webb Nichols ran the Rocky Mountain Photo Studio in Encampment, Wyoming. Encampment was and still is a very small town in Western America. Webb Nichols operated her studio there at the end of a mining boom and during the very difficult American years of the Great Depression. Her work reflects local life and custom and her efforts as the head of the Rocky Mountain Photo Studio can be seen retrospectively as defiant in the face of difficult economic moments. Webb Nichols consistent passion as a business woman in photography should be seen as a case study for gender and economy in the re-appraisal of photographic history. It is a fascinating story.
Webb Nichols work is interesting. It is the type of work made with passion and fascination for the medium. When reading the text provided in the book, you get the sense of an industrious business woman who was a bit of a maverick. She fed her family, was married twice and refused to continually succumb to the whims of her husbands. Instead of giving into the pressures of domesticity, Webb Nichols actively improved her business licensing the Kodak name and opening a larger studio when time and money allowed. The photographs permit a joyful exuberance. Play is a major part of her work and though times were difficult, one can see that the camera perhaps created a diversion from the stress of family life and economy.
The story does not stop there however. Webb Nichols story is full of twists and turns and there are many incredibly poignant anecdotal descriptions of her photographs that make the trove of 24,000 negatives fascinating to comb over. This very possibility is what drew Nicole Jean to the work after stumbling on the small provincial museum which held Webb Nichols negatives while on a residency for her own work. Down the rabbit hole of history and the story of Webb Nichols Nicole Jean went. After working on the archive for several years, Encampment, Wyoming is the beautiful product of so many hours of working with the archive. Nicole Jean’s efforts have bore fruit in the making of the book, but also the larger and more lasting preservation of the Webb Nichols name.
In the episode we speak about Nicole Jean’s experience finding the negatives and bringing them into public consciousness after so many years. She recounts how outdated media in which the original images were stored after initial scanning presented an obstacle in seeing the work and how this body of work informs her own interests. It is an incredible story and another much-needed recounting of how we view the history of the medium. Gaps continue to be filled and the work of people like Nora Jean are helping to turn a very one-dimensional understanding of photographic history on its head. Please tune-in!