Frontier Women FRAMED!

By February 22, 2008

As my final act as guest poster, I’m offering another selection from my GEA collection paper about how these compositions were framed (thought a sensational post title might attract a few more readers ;-).

I look forward to joining you more permanently at the end of March! Thanks for the invite future fellow Instructors!


In historical research, omitted information sometimes reveals more than what is printed on a page. The same rules of analysis apply to visual sources. Andersen’s portraits provide a unique opportunity in photographic analysis┬áby sometimes revealing the unintentional edges of a scene. Whereas typical western portraits in archives are cropped and developed final prints, the Andersen collection consists of the pre-cropped negatives. The collection offers glimpses of what both patrons and the photographer meant to hide in the finished product. Thus, these uncut images give glimpses into the everyday lives that hung around the edges of staged formal portraits.

In one photograph from Scofield, Caroline Westenskow stands prim and corseted in a black mourning dress, perhaps still grieving for a lost husband or son in the mine disaster of 1900.[1] She sternly faces the camera, her hand resting on a well-made and upholstered wooden chair. The painted backdrop of the interior of a wealthy home sets the scene of a comfortable, elegant existence. In the center of the photograph, all things are pristine and sumptuous. Yet, at the edges, hints of a frontier life encroach on the performance.

At the edge of the studio carpet, a rustic wardrobe imposes itself into the negative image. Linen spills out of the overstuffed and partially the product of any other studio, Carolina Westenskow is revealed as a lady determined to be respectable even in the midst of a noisy, isolated mining town at the edge of the American frontier. The tension between the image’s center and its uncropped edges reveals a quiet dignity that Caroline is determined to record as part of a middle-class lifestyle.


Andersen’s unintentional rough framing underscores frontier women’s desires for respectability. However, the intentional framing Andersen utilized in some of his more unique portraits elucidated cultural mores beyond simply the economic. One framing motif in particular dealt directly with the sometimes surprising gender roles of central Utah in portraits of women visually bounded within the doorways of their homesteads.

Although critics may interpret these doorframe portraits as “entrapping” women within domesticity, Andersen’s images suggest a type of playful, almost ironic use of the doorway as a frame. Mrs. Sam M. Williams of Emery, for example, stands out against the darkened doorway of her whitewashed home. [2] Yet, instead of standing, trapped in the symbolic “prison” of the homestead, she approaches the doorjamb; the line between the feminine domestic realm and the outside world of the mining and faming settlement.


Other photographs are more overt in blurring the lines between “feminine” and more “masculine” work through plays on doorway framing. In one particular example, Sarah Anderson, Nell Starr, and Ida Alleman Taylor, a small town schoolteacher, stand nearby the open backdoor of a split wood home [Image 5]. (note: you all probably recognize this photograph from the cover of Claudia Bushman’s “Mormon Sisters: Women in Early Utah”)[3] While Nell Starr remains framed within the darkened rectangle, Sarah Anderson and Ida Taylor have stepped onto the front steps. All three look directly at the camera with amused smiles. Sarah reiterates the well-known pose of the “new woman” so often repeated in these portraits, both hands on hips, standing contrapossto, hair fashionably up in the latest Gibson girl style. Nearby, a Great American Western Washing machine and jars of canned fruit and vegetables hint at typically women’s work as housekeepers and cooks. However, Ida, the educated schoolmarm, conflicts these seemingly “feminine” images of work as she grasps the handle of a hammer hanging at her side. Ida, though identifying herself as a woman by standing on the doorsteps of a frontier home, simultaneously insists that she is not entrapped in the doorway, framed by the cult of domesticity. Instead, she chooses where she stands and whether she works with the household’s Great American Washing machine or the tool shed’s sturdy hammer.


[1] GEA Andersen, Ida Alleman, and Nell Starr.”

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. I’ve really enjoyed this series; thank you for sharing it with us!

    Comment by Proud Daughter of Eve — February 23, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  2. Thank you so much for this delightful series. I have learned many things, including:

    1. Always pay attention to detail, including props, background, and form of portraits.

    2. Always pay attention to my position and the position of others in pictures I am taking…

    Comment by Ben — February 23, 2008 @ 3:39 pm

  3. Ben–HAH!

    Comment by Heidi — February 23, 2008 @ 4:46 pm

  4. I located the same photograph of Caroline Westenskow in a Utah Historical Quarterly photo essay. For some reason, the essay identifies the location as Manti, which I believe was Westenskow’s birthplace (pp. 98-99).

    Comment by Justin — February 25, 2008 @ 5:37 pm


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