On the "Women's History Trail" last week in Logan, tour guide Vera Christensen offered glimpses into the lives of many fascinating Utah women.
Christensen talked about educators such as Lula Green Richards and midwives like Mary Ann Weston Maughan; religious leaders such as Nancy Areta Porter Stevenson Clark, who was the first matron of the Logan LDS Temple; and professional women like chiropractor Ida Scott.None, however, was more fascinating or more an enigma than photographer Elfie Huntington.
Cary Stevens Jones of Utah Arts Council introduced participants to Huntington's life and work at the beginning of the tour. Her work is on display through the end of March at the Alliance for the Varied Arts community center, 290 N. Fourth East, in Logan.
Huntington's photographs are both humorous and haunting. Just to glance at the Utah Arts Council's traveling exhibit is to want to know more about the woman who took these pictures.
Jones explains that Huntington lived her entire life, from 1868 to 1949, in Spring-ville, Utah County, leaving us "an unbelievable record of daily life in a small town."
"She had a studio, where she supported herself by taking portraits. But it's her personal collection that's so unusual. She went into kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. She took pictures of Christmas trees and children sledding, and people playing in the park."
As much as she captivates us with turn-of-the-century Utah, Huntington captivates us even more with herself. Her photography is an expression of intelligence and sensitivity. Photography was her only outlet for expression, actually, and for many years she had not even that.
Elfie Huntington was deaf from the age of 4. She was raised by her grandmother after her mother died in childbirth; her father was an Indian agent, always "off in the territory" until he remarried and moved to California.
Since there was little education for handicapped students in those days, Huntington didn't perfect her lip reading or her awkward speech until she was in her late teens. Then, when her grandmother died, she went to board with an aunt and uncle who taught her and helped her become an apprentice to photographer George Edward Anderson.
Elfie Huntington's personal photos are often surrealistic. She framed a "Gone to Dinner" sign with bones and a skull. A donkey is portrayed as a telephone. Near a sleeping dog, she arranged an empty whiskey bottle and a pipe.
Out of the studio, Huntington preferred her subjects unposed - making faces or scrambling into position for a formal photo. If she arranged her subjects at all, they posed in irony. Sometimes animals acted like people, as in "Three Dogs on Chairs." Sometimes people made fun of themselves, as in her clown photos or the portrait of a man who had both legs amputated and who chose to pose for a disabled photographer with his wooden legs off and his stumps crossed jauntily.
Throughout her photos run themes of costumes and masks, children, festivals and parades, and drunkenness. Perhaps because she was deaf, perhaps because she was an anomaly in her town and in her time - being a single, childless, professional woman - she was allowed into many lives.
Children played before her without shyness. Women flirted. Men had their drinking parties. She recorded the rich life she saw with humor and, Jones believes, sometimes with jealousy. Perhaps.
"Elfie Huntington was a very complex woman," Jones says. "She left a diary, but it was disappointing. Just a chronicle. Nothing about her early life, or her feelings. We have to rely on her images for that. And they are only clues."