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Main Street, Wyoming: Charles Belden - Cowboy Photographer
Featuring, many of Belden’s most famous photographs, interviews with his granddaughter and Belden historians, a restoration of his darkroom, and a movie made by Belden: “Where West is still West”.
Two Gunshots. Two Deaths. Sixty years apart. The connection? The Pitchfork Ranch.
In 1903 Otto Franc, founder of the sprawling 250,000 acre Pitchfork Ranch near Meeteetse, Wyoming was found dead of a gunshot wound. His rifle was leaning against a barbed wire fence. They called it accidental. Sixty years later the same fate would visit a man named Charles Belden. But this time, the cause of death was quite clear. It was a suicide.
Charles Belden was born in 1888 to a wealthy California family and was a 1909 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following graduation, Belden and classmate Eugene Phelps toured Europe in a brand new 1908 Packard automobile. Belden bought his first camera to record the trip. The highlight of the tour was a journey through Russia, the first automobile to ever make such an expedition in that country. An account of that journey later appeared as magazine story with photos: “An American Motorist in the Land of the Czar.”
After the trip, Belden went to work as a cowboy on the Phelps ranch in Wyoming—the historic Pitchfork ranch of Otto Franc, which Eugene’s father, Louis Graham Phelps, purchased after Franc’s death. In 1912 Belden married Eugene’s sister, Frances. His interest in photography persisted. He was an early experimenter with the color “autochrome” process. Belden’s western photography first came to national attention in 1918 with an article in Scribner’s magazine. “The Motor in Yellowstone”, which featured a color photograph of the Falls of the Yellowstone.
After the death of Louis Graham Phelps in 1922, Eugene and Charles took over management of the ranch. But neither of them were very good businessmen. Eugene liked to tinker in the workshop, inventing things, while Charles’ fascination with photography continued to grow. He began taking photos of everyday life on the Pitchfork, chronicling the western ranch. These photographs convey a sense of energy, vitality and adventure as well as the hardships of the Wyoming range. They were published in such leading magazines as National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post and Life. Today his photographs are considered classic images of the American West.
With the advent of the airplane, Belden became interested in flying and the incursion of the modern world on traditional western ways. His photos of the intersection between the new and the old are riveting in their subject matter and symbolism. In the late 1920s, Charles became involved in raising antelope and sending them by airplane to zoos around the world. He helped pioneer the process of planting fish from the air and worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission conducting a census of wildlife herd populations using aerial photographs.
Estate taxes, mismanagement and a depression took their toll on the Pitchfork and the ranch fell into decline. To meet expenses, in the 1930’s the family turned their home into a dude ranch. Belden’s photos and promotions made it a success and drew such luminaries as Amelia Earhart and Will Rodgers.
But the depression was far reaching and the financial drain at the Pitchfork continued. After years of strained relations, Charles divorced Frances in 1940 and moved to Florida with his new wife, Verna Steele Belden. There he continued to pursue photography. But much of it now was for advertisements to pay the bills. There, he never achieved the same pinnacle as he did at the Pitchfork. His Florida photos lacked spark and story. He became involved in two lawsuits. Belden’s fame gradually diminished until in 1966, he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was found in his darkroom.