Before there was Instagram, there was Elfie Huntington. Born in 1868 in Springville, Utah, Huntington was one of the earlier photographers to use the camera to capture mundane and intimate moments of human experience. Though not atypical of the time, the frontier grimness of Huntington’s early life informed her unique vision. Huntington lost her hearing at the age of four, a result of scarlet fever. Her mother died two years later and she eventually ended up living with an aunt and uncle, who encouraged her artistically and helped her finally learn to lip read. At the age of 24, Elfie was apprenticed to a local photographer. It was during this time that she purchased her first small view camera. In 1903, she and another apprentice, Joseph Bagley, formed their own studio, Huntington and Bagley. For the next 33 years, they took thousands of pictures, mostly portraits, but they also traveled, often by motorcycle and with Elfie in the driver’s seat, documenting the lives of hundreds of people throughout central and southern Utah. They married in 1936, when Elfie was 68.

Her work often combines darkness and innocence in a way that may or may not have been intentional. She certainly had a grisly sense of humor and a high tolerance for the surreal. A donkey masquerades as a telephone. Subjects appear in costumes and masks of all sorts. Elfie took pictures of people in their living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, on porches, in gardens. Some favorite themes involve formally posing children with dogs, and objects, such as boxes or chairs, draped in fur. When not in the studio, Elfie preferred her subjects to be unposed. She often snaps the shutter before the group is fully assembled for the formal photo. Drunkenness recurs often. Bottles, full and empty, litter the photographs. In her studio images, we often get to see what’s beyond the backdrop. This was not an artistic choice as much as a convenience. Most pictures back then went into frames, which would cover any messy parts. It is these messy parts, the emulsion damage and visible reflectors, that heighten an already gothic atmosphere.

Elfie died in 1949, at the age of 80. What follows is but a slim pickings of her oeuvre. All images are used courtesy of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

-Otis Nebula

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