I believe that photography provides a way to celebrate the amazing journey of life. It offers enjoyment, inspiration, and insight into the world around us. It’s intriguing what people say they see and feel while gazing at a photograph.
I grew up on a cattle ranch in SE Montana. Our home’s knotty pine walls were covered in art and artifacts. My grandmother’s photographs (Jessamine Spear Johnson) hung prominently in the hallways alongside Cheyenne beaded moccasins and Crow tribal belts. As a child I was fascinated by these photos. In addition, oil paintings, prints, and etchings covered the walls in the living room, the den, and our bedrooms. I often wanted to step inside the frame and experience what I was viewing. I was surrounded by the changing West and its characters.
The West speaks to people in many ways. There are the stories of the sturdy, courageous, diligent pioneers. Men and women who never quit until they conquered the prairies. There’s the breathtaking scenery, the glistening streams full of fish, and the deer and the antelope too numerous to count. But it’s the pioneer’s struggle that fascinates me. How did they survive and triumph over broken down mules, snakebite, cholera, blizzards and drought? My passion is to bring to light these stories, especially of the compelling women, who through perseverance and intelligence made a difference.
Unfortunately, in this world women’s contributions are often overlooked and undervalued. I have spent my life trying to create space for women to achieve their potential and be recognized for their abilities. I grew up surrounded by the strong women in my family. I was excited when my aunt Annabelle handed me my grandmother Jessamine’s diaries. My grandmother had not only raised a large family but assisted her husband in operating several ranches, all the while taking amazing photographs. At her death in 1978, Jessamine’s photographic legacy was stored in my parent’s basement. I began planning even then to tell the story of her life and her ability as a photographer.
Personally, I had escaped the hardscrabble ranch life for college in southern California. I married a California native in 1971 (Hooray, no more winters), and we settled in the Bay Area where I began my insurance career. My English degree from Scripps College was put to good use communicating with my clients.
In my spare time, I began reading my grandmother’s diaries and collecting stories from my parents, aunts and uncles on my forays back to Montana and Wyoming each summer. I retired in 2007 from my thirty-three years in insurance sales, first as a sales rep with AAA, then twenty-seven and a half years as an agent for State Farm Insurance. I first began conserving and cataloging the thirty-three boxes of Jessamine’s treasure trove. I outlined her diaries and researched local history extensively in preparation for writing herstory. In reviewing her photos, my childhood memories of breaking colts, riding at dawn to gather for branding, and wielding a branding iron in the hot sun became vivid again. Thousands of images later, my oldest sister found the thirty-fourth box. I began to think I would never finish the initial task of scanning and cataloging. Like everything else, there was a finish line. After outlining her life, I began to write. My “photo book” will be published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press in early May 2023. It tells of Jessamine’s early explorations with photography. She always carried a camera throughout her life taking wonderful photos not just of ranching, but of trees, wildlife, flowers, early rodeos, her Crow and Cheyenne neighbors, and the early days of dude ranching. I will be sharing some of these stories and photos with you in my blog over the ensuing months.