DCHS exhibit highlights work of Superior's frontier photographer
It was an age when the camera was larger than a toaster oven. Images were captured on 8-by-10 inch cut glass, and the chemicals used to process those images — like cyanide — were deadly.
“Photographers did die just trying to process their pictures,” said JoAnn Jardine, assistant director of the Douglas County Historical Society and long-time Superior photographer. “That’s part of what I really admire — the work that went into taking just one photograph.”
And this week, the Douglas County Historical Society unveils some of those images captured in the late 1800s and early 1900s by famous Superior photographer, David F. Barry.
Barry was best known for his photographs of the frontier Army and images of Native Americans, most notably the Lakota Sioux. The photographer who got his start in the Dakota Territory spent most of his life living and working in Superior — more than 40 years.
“David Barry is extremely important for people who study the history of the northern plains,” said Michael Fox, curator of the Museum of the Rockies, an expert in western history and the work of Barry. “Barry’s work is particularly inspiring for me.”
While Barry grew up in Wisconsin, Fox said his formative years as a photographer were spent in Bismarck N.D.
“Then it was still the Dakota Territory, but he was there in an unusual period of western history,” Fox said. Barry arrived in the Dakota territory in 1878, two years after the Sioux War.
Fox said Barry arrived when what was happening in the west was of interest nationally and worldwide. He said many of the participants in the war, and the Battle of Big Horn were in the Bismarck-area when Barry and his business partner, Orlando Goff, were active photographers and took photographs of many of the participants in the aftermath.
Barry’s Native subjects gave him the name “Icastinyanka Cikala Hanzi” or the “Little Shadow Catcher.”
Fox said the most interesting images Barry captured was of Native American people as they made the transition from plains tribal people to settled reservation people.
Among his most notable Native subjects were Chief John Grass, Chief Rain-in-the-Face, medicine man Sitting Bull and Chief Gall, but he also captured images of many famous military personnel of the time
Some of those images can be seen in a photograph of his studio at 1322 Tower Ave.; it was one of two studios the famed frontier photographer set up on Tower Avenue — he also had one on Broadway Street — after he and his wife settle in Superior in 1890, when the city was going through a boom period.
Fox said Barry was in Bismarck, the city was booming, and when Bismarck started losing population, Barry settled in another boom town, back in his native Wisconsin.
The new permanent exhibit, which opens 5-8 p.m. tonight with a reception and program at the Douglas County Historical Society, 1101 John Ave., will continue to feature Barry’s famous works from his time in the Dakota Territory, which includes today’s North Dakota and Montana, but the Superior wall is likely to change over.
There are countless themes the exhibit could capture over time, reflecting Superior — actors and actresses, race horses, children, women, the whaleback ships, Fairlawn, industry — there’s tons of topics we could pull from our archives, Jardine said.
Fox, who hails from Montana, said he was impressed with the collection of prints available at the Douglas County Historical Society, because after Barry’s death in 1934, his negatives were sold to a museum in Denver.
Nancy Day of Framing by Nancy sponsored the exhibit, which is funded in part by the Wisconsin Humanities Council.
Tonight’s reception is free and open to the public.
The exhibit can be seen 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday.