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Capturing the frontier, one shot at a time: Photographer featured in Wisconsin exhibit

FNS Photo by Jed Carlson Michael Fox, curator of the Museum of the Rockies, talks about the work of photographer David F. Barry at the Douglas County Historical Society in Superior, Wis., on July 23. The DCHS opened an exhibit featuring Barry’s works with Native Americans and the frontier armies, as well as his later years in life when he was a photographer in Superior.

SUPERIOR, Wis. — 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.

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“Photographers did die just trying to process their pictures,” said JoAnn Jardine, assistant director of the Douglas County Historical Society and longtime Superior photographer. “That’s part of what I really admire — the work that went into taking just one photograph.”

The Douglas County Historical Society has unveiled 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 in the West. 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 and an expert in Western history. “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.

“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 Wars.

Fox said Barry arrived when what was happening in the West was of interest nationally and worldwide. He said many war participants were in the Bismarck area when Barry and his business partner, Orlando Goff, were active photographers. They 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 were of Native Americans 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.

Barry set up three studios after he and his wife settled in Superior in 1890, when the city was going through a boom period. Fox said Barry was in Bismarck when that city was booming, and when Bismarck started losing population, Barry relocated to another boomtown, back in his native Wisconsin.

The Douglas County Historical Society’s new permanent exhibit 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 time.

Jardine said there are countless themes reflecting Superior that the exhibit could capture — actors and actresses, racehorses, children, women, whaleback ships, industry.

Fox, who hails from Montana, said he was impressed with the collection of prints available at the 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.