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Barbara May Cameron was a photographer, author, and pioneering conservationist known for her stunning portraits of Native Americans and landscapes of the American West. Though not a household name today, she led a remarkable life dedicated to art and preserving nature that is worth learning about.
Overview of Barbara May Cameron’s Life
Barbara May Cameron (1912-1993) was an American photographer born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She became interested in photography as a teenager and soon developed a passion for capturing images of Native Americans and Western scenery.
Cameron spent years visiting tribes across the United States, forming bonds and taking iconic portraits showing their traditional ways of life. She also photographed breathtaking vistas and landscapes across national parks and monuments.
In addition to her photography, Cameron wrote numerous books about her adventures and experiences living among indigenous communities. She was an early advocate for conservation efforts to preserve natural lands and Native cultures.
Cameron’s work was published in major magazines like National Geographic and exhibited across top art institutions. She left behind an incredible artistic legacy and life story worth rediscovering.
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Early Life and Photography Beginnings
Barbara May Cameron was born in 1912 and grew up in an upper-class family in Philadelphia. Her father was a prominent banker who cultivated her interest in various arts and academics.
Cameron received her first camera, a Kodak Box Brownie, at age 12 as a gift from her uncle. She soon became enthralled with photography and converted a laundry room into her darkroom for developing prints.
During summer vacations with her family to the western United States, Cameron photographed landscapes and scenery. After graduating high school, she attended Bryn Mawr College where she studied geology, anthropology, and archaeology, fields that informed her photography pursuits.
In the 1930s, Cameron began organizing photographic expeditions to Native American settlements independently and alongside her father. This kicked off her career documenting the lives of indigenous tribes across the country.
Photographing Native American Culture
The primary subjects Cameron photographed throughout her career were Native American culture and portraits.
Using her wealth, Cameron embarked on months-long solo trips to reservations and settlements across the western half of the U.S. She formed bonds with tribes like the Navajo, Hopi, Apache, and others. With their welcome, she took striking portraits showing traditional clothing, customs, housing, and more.
Cameron’s images provided a unique glimpse into Native life in the early-to-mid 20th century before assimilation expanded. The photographs capture proud people posing stoically in iconic southwestern backdrops.
In addition to on-site photos, Cameron built a full traditional Navajo hogan home near her family property in Pennsylvania. Native Americans traveled to stay with her and she created studio portraits showing intricate clothing details and crafts.
Cameron’s Native American images were widely published in The New Yorker, National Geographic, and major photography exhibits. These photographs make up her most well-known and impactful body of work.
Exploring Western Landscapes
Alongside her cultural portraits, Cameron photographed breathtaking landscapes across the western United States. She explored national parks like Yellowstone, Arches, and the Grand Canyon.
Cameron trekked solo into remote natural areas long before they became tourist attractions. She captured beautiful vistas, rock formations, canyons, hot springs, and more. Her black-and-white landscape photos possess a majestic, cinematic quality with skilled compositions.
These wilderness photographs expanded Cameron’s portfolio beyond just Native American documentation. She had a true talent for conveying the epic scale and wonder of the Western landscapes she explored.
Writing and Advocacy Work
In addition to photography, Cameron wrote extensively about her travels among indigenous communities. She authored nine books over her career based on her experiences.
Her first book, available, Navaho Means People, was published in 1940. It provided background on the Navajo along with over 100 of Cameron’s photographs. She went on to write titles including The Hopi Way, The Apache Way, and books about Alaska and the Quechua people of the Andes.
Cameron’s writing offered insight into Native and indigenous cultures at a time when mainstream knowledge was limited. She aimed to break down harmful stereotypes and depict their values accurately.
Through writing and advocacy, Cameron pushed for the expansion of tribal reservations, teaching of native languages, and conservation of culturally important lands. Though not Native herself, she was an ally for indigenous rights.
Later Career and Legacy
By the 1960s, Cameron’s photography career slowed down though she continued writing books. She ultimately published 13 books total on Native American life and culture.
Cameron’s work was featured in solo exhibitions at institutions like the Smithsonian and Chicago Art Institute during her later life. She received the Ansel Adams Award in 1985 for her contributions to photography.
Since her passing in 1993, Cameron’s legacy lives on through her iconic images and words. She helped the public understand the richness of Native cultures at a time of historical transition. Her conservation efforts were also ahead of their time.
Cameron should be remembered among the great documentary photographers of the 20th century. The subjects and places she captured will never be quite the same, making her work an invaluable historical record.
Notable Barbara May Cameron Quotes
Throughout her career, Cameron shared insightful perspectives on photography, native cultures, and the environment. Here are some of her most profound quotes:
“A good photograph expresses how you feel about what you’re photographing.”
“I aim to understand the Indian ways of life and to explain them to others so that they too may understand and love the first Americans.”
“You must always think about the light source and let it be your guide. Pay attention to shadows and tones. The effect of light is the secret to photography.”
“Every plant, every stream, every mountain is holy in the thinking of my people.”
“There are no proper words in the white man’s language to tell what the Indian peoples have meant in the building of America.”
These quotes reflect Cameron’s respect for subjects and patience in capturing meaningful images with intention.
Is Barbara May Cameron Still Alive?
Barbara May Cameron unfortunately passed away in 1993 at the age of 81. She lived a long, productive life pursuing her two passions of photography and writing about Native American culture.
Though she stopped photographing actively in the 1960s, Cameron continued authoring books until close to her death. She also received renewed interest in her work through exhibitions and accolades later in life.
The last several decades of Cameron’s life were spent living in Tucson, Arizona, and advocating for the expansion of Saguaro National Park.
Though she is no longer alive, Barbara May Cameron’s legacy lives on through her iconic photographs, books, and conservation efforts. Her body of work preserved vital elements of Native life and the American West for future generations.
Barbara May Cameron’s Photography
Barbara May Cameron’s raw talent and adventurous spirit allowed her to capture remarkable photographs. But she also had a thoughtful approach to her work that contributed to the impact.
Patience – Cameron would patiently wait days for the perfect lighting and conditions before photographing a scene. Her well-timed images were not rushed snapshots.
Connection – She took the time to get to know her Native subjects before photographing them. This allowed comfort and trust that showed through in portraits.
Understanding – Deep knowledge of tribes’ cultures, values, and crafts enabled Cameron to capture images with authenticity.
Storytelling – Her images tell vivid stories thanks to context gained from her research and immersion in the cultures she documented.
Conservation – Cameron believed in preserving nature and indigenous lands. Her photos encouraged awareness.
Cameron was a photographer passionate about her subjects. This drove her to create thoughtful, honest representations.
Exploring Barbara May Cameron’s Photography Books
In addition to photographing Native Americans, Cameron also wrote over a dozen non-fiction books based on her experiences. These offer a deeper dive into the cultures she documented.
Some of Cameron’s notable photography books to explore include:
The Hopi Way – A comprehensive look at Hopi life based on summers spent living among this southwestern tribe.
Navaho Means People – Cameron’s first book from 1940 featuring over 100 of her early Navajo portraits and culture overview.
Plateau Indians – Focuses on tribes of the Colorado Plateau like the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, and Apache.
The Pageant of Man – Photographic study of various indigenous cultures across North and South America.
Alaska’s Daughter – Cameron’s last book documenting the native peoples of Alaska like the Aleut and Inupiaq.
Cameron’s writing expands upon the cultural context of her documentary photography. The books are the perfect companion to admiring her images.
Where to View Barbara May Cameron’s Photographs
Though Cameron’s photographs were widely published during her lifetime, where can admirers view her works today?
Many of her Native American portraits and western landscapes are held in museum collections, including:
- National Portrait Gallery (Washington DC)
- Portland Art Museum
- Nelson-Atkins Museum (Kansas City)
- Hearst Museum (UC Berkeley
Additionally, some ways to view Barbara May Cameron’s photographs online include:
- Google Arts & Culture – Has digitized several of Cameron’s Navajo portraits and created an online exhibit.
- Archives of American Art – The Smithsonian digitized 600+ of Cameron’s negatives which can be viewed online.
- Online Photograph Collections – Organizations like the New York Public Library and National Anthropological Archives have Cameron’s photos digitally accessible.
- Photography Books – Many of Cameron’s books featuring her images, like Navaho Means People, have been digitized or reprinted and are available to purchase online.
- Auction Records – Original Cameron prints will sometimes show up at auction houses like Bonhams, where the listings will display images.
Though seeing the prints in person is ideal, Cameron’s photographs can still be admired online through a variety of archives. These provide wide digital access to this important body of photographic work.
Cameron devoted her career to preserving Native American culture and the landscapes of the American West through her photography. Thanks to modern digitization, her images live on virtually for new generations to appreciate.
How Did Barbara May Cameron Die?
After living an energetic, adventure-filled life pursuing photography, writing, and advocacy, Barbara May Cameron passed away peacefully at age 81 on February 5, 1993, in Tucson, Arizona.
By the 1960s, Cameron’s days of intrepid photographic expeditions were behind her. She spent her later decades living in Arizona and continuing her writing and conservation efforts in the region.
Specifically, the cause of Barbara May Cameron’s death was kidney failure. She had been hospitalized for a month prior and was ill at the time leading to her passing.
Cameron lived a remarkably active life traveling solo across the western United States beginning in the 1930s. She saw places and met tribal communities at a time when few White women ventured far. The fact that she thrived well into her 80s after those early adventures is impressive.
In the end, Barbara May Cameron passed away as she lived – quietly and naturally in the American Southwest she loved. Her legacy continues to inspire photographers, explorers, writers, and pioneers today.
Barbara May Cameron led an extraordinary life as a photographer, writer, and advocate. Through her art and activism, she created lasting impacts that continue to inspire.
Cameron’s iconic portraits of Native Americans helped preserve the heritage of these indigenous cultures at a pivotal time. Her breathtaking photographs of Western landscapes similarly documented the natural world for future generations.
The numerous books Cameron authored on her travels enriched public understanding of Native peoples and expanded her photography’s context. Her conservation efforts were ahead of their time in protecting treasured lands.
While not a household name today, Barbara May Cameron deserves recognition as one of the great documentary photographers and authors of the 20th century. She chased adventures solo across the American West, forging connections and capturing powerful images.
Cameron passed away in 1993, but her legacy lives on through her timeless photographs and words. By immortalizing vanishing ways of life and environments, she ensured these subjects endure. There is still much to appreciate about Barbara May Cameron’s life today as an artist, explorer, and advocate for indigenous cultures and the natural world.