A Life In The Wilderness

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somehow afflicted found the promise of health in the mineral hot springs, which were guaranteed to be ‘especially efficacious for the cure of rheumatic, gouty and allied conditions’. For a young photographer the Rockies offered a time and place of high excitement, wild-west romantic notions, and soaring mountains and shifting light to stir both spirit and eye. It was the beginning of a forty-year affair.

Byron Hill Harmon was born on February 9, 1876, near Tacoma, Washington, one of three children of Hill and Clara Smith Harmon. The parents were of pioneer stock, Clara’s family journeying from Indiana to Washington in 1851 via the Oregon Trail, Hill’s family following a more circuitous route to the West from New Brunswick and New York.

Clara exhibited all the characteristics expected of a child raised on a donation claim (let alone the second white person born on one of the islands of Puget Sound): resourcefulness and self-reliance, a respect for nature, and a compassion for others. She needed all of those qualities, for her husband disappeared shortly after Byron’s birth and she was left with the sole responsibility for her three children. Working as a matron on one of the Puget Sound Indian Reservations, she kept her family together and exposed her children to the Indian character and native skills, an experience that would stand Byron in good stead in later years in the Rockies.

As a young boy Harmon had serious illnesses, suffering through typhoid on two occasions and struggling constantly against asthma. This affliction greatly influenced his decision to settle in the Rockies, where the clear, dry air granted him almost complete relief. The asthma stayed with him all his life, however, and occasionally when he returned to a coastal climate he suffered relapses so severe that he was forced to sleep sitting up in a chair to keep his lungs clear.

In his teens he exhibited two traits that would persist
throughout his life: a predilection for working with his hands, creating and building objects of his own design, and a penchant for photography. Kodak marketed the first roll film in the late 188os, and the company, using the slogan ‘You Push the Button, We Do the Rest’, went to great lengths to convince the American public that photography was no longer a science restricted to a professionally trained elite. Being unable to afford one of the advertised cameras, Harmon brought his talents to bear on a wooden box and fashioned a crude product of his own - a lensless pinhole affair that gave him his first images. Whatever the results of that early camera, they obviously encouraged him to continue with photography and, in fact, to turn to it for a living after a short stint working in a mill not only proved uncreative but also aggravated his asthma.

He opened a small portrait studio in Tacoma, probably in the mid-189os, and the story of his humble beginnings as a professional photographer became a favourite one in his later, more comfortable years.

Once the young photographer had rented a building and equipped it with the necessary paraphernalia for developing and printing portraits, he was totally out of cash and well beyond his line of credit. Embarrassingly, he was a photographer without film for his cameras. Unperturbed, he welcomed his first client and calmly took a photograph sans film, receiving payment in advance. When the client returned the next day to collect the portrait, Harmon announced that he was not pleased with the results and that the process would have to be repeated. Another portrait was taken, this time with film purchased with the down payment, and Harmon was in business. Whether or not his ploy was a product of desperation or a premeditated risk or both, it exemplifies the ingenuity and confidence Harmon exhibited again and again in his photographic career.

Some time toward the end of the nineties, Harmon decided his asthma and his photography both needed a change of scenery.

A Life In The Wilderness

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