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Huffman, Laton Alton (a.k.a. Layton Alton or L.A.)
b. 1854; d. 1931
Discipline: Photography

Laton Alton Huffman was born in 1854 on a farm near the small town of Castalia, Iowa. He was the latest addition to a long line of pioneers and, as a child, was often regaled by his grandfathers with stories of fur traders, military forts, and American Indians. This no doubt inspired him, at least in part, to live and work in what he eventually saw as the last frontier: Montana and western North Dakota. 

He got his first experience with photography - his eventual profession - in 1867 or 1868, when his family moved to the town of Waukon and his father opened a photography studio.

In his late teens, he left home and headed west to Fargo and Devils Lake, North Dakota, where he worked a string of low-paying odd jobs like standing in line for would-be homesteaders.

In 1875 or 1876, Huffman returned to Iowa and established his own photography studio in Pottsville, which was near Waukon. This lasted for a brief time, however, and in 1878 – after being jilted from a love affair with an older woman – he returned to the Fargo area.

He briefly worked in a photography studio in Moorhead, Minnesota, which is across the Red River from Fargo. He left again, made a brief trip to Kansas, and returned to the Fargo-Moorhead area, where he took work as a hired hand on a pig and dairy farm.

Finding that work distasteful, he moved further west and eventually took a position as post photographer at Fort Keogh in Montana. He stayed for two years before moving to Milestown (present day Miles City) and establishing his own studio.

He stayed in Milestown for ten years, during which time he opened several studios around the city. He was elected to the school board in 1885 and to the county commission in 1886. In 1893, he was elected to serve Custer County in the Montana House of Representatives.

In the mid-1890’s, a depression swept the country and rural areas were especially hard hit. Business plummeted for Huffman and he soon found himself on the move again. He went as far east as Chicago, (where he worked for a photography studio) before returning to Miles City in 1896, where he spent the rest of his life.

When he first arrived in Montana in 1878, he was just in time to witness the transformation of the area. The Battle of Little Bighorn had occurred just two years before and was still fresh in the minds of both white settlers and American Indians. Several military posts were established in the brief time between that battle and Huffman’s arrival. American Indians, who had populated most of the region before the battle, were being killed in skirmishes and raids or forcibly moved to reservations. As the post photographer at Fort Keogh, Huffman was on the front lines of this transition.

Some of his photographs of that era serve as historical documentation that focuses on what he saw as a disappearing way of life. His portraits of American Indians feature stoic withdrawn faces. His subjects were often photographed in the traditional dress of their culture at that time. Several other photographs show settlers and pioneers finishing off the symbols of the Indian life: burnt tepees, graphic depictions of skinned buffalo, and so on.

This was coupled, however, with other photographs of settlers starting their new lives. Huffman made numerous images of budding towns, farms, and houses. He made portraits of townspeople and of notable figures of the time, including Calamity Jane. He also traveled for a time to Medora, North Dakota and made several photographs for the Marquis de Mores as he established his slaughterhouse there.

Huffman retired from photography in 1905 and made his living selling prints from his old glass plate negatives. He died of a heart attack in 1931 while visiting his daughter in Billings.

- Ben Nemenoff

Bibliography:

Tweton, Jerry. “The World of Layton Alton Huffman.” The Photographs of L.A. Huffman (exhibition catalog). Bismarck: Dakota Printing Company.

Waldera, G.J. “L.A. Huffman, Frontier Photographer.” The Photographs of L.A. Huffman (exhibition catalog). Bismarck: Dakota Printing Company.

*Images courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota (#A3743 and #A3742).

Huffman photo

Huffman phot
 
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