Mattie Gunterman was born sometime during the spring of 1872 in La Crosse, Wisconsin, a waterfront town that became a major boat building centre for Mississippi River packet steamers. The official proof of Mattie's existence emerges in the 1880 United States census where she appears as eight year old "Ida A. Warner" living with her maternal grandmother.
Mattie is described by her friend Kathleen Goldsmith as "delicate" suggesting that she was often sick as a child but from her earliest days she exhibited an extremely strong sense of self-identity choosing to be known as Mattie as opposed to Ida or Madeline. The most convincing evidence of her sense of self appears through her photographs; she appears in more than half of them. In some she is alone, sitting astride her horse or standing with rifle in hand, and in others she is inconspicuously present within a group of people. She seems to have regarded herself more as a vital component of the life she photographed than as a photographic observer detached from real participation in the activities of the community.
Mattie became caught up in the Kodak craze early in life, learning about the photographic process from an uncle who had a studio in La Crosse. When, in the late 1880s, Mattie left her home town and headed west for the booming city of Seattle, she took her Bull's Eye, snapshot camera with her. In Seattle, where she found work as a hotel maid, Mattie met Emma Gunterman who introduced her to her brother Bill. Mattie and Bill soon married and spent the next forty-five years together. Henry, their son, was born in 1892.
Mattie developed trouble with her lungs due to the constant rain and dampness of Seattle so in the spring of 1897 she, Bill and Henry headed for the semi-arid climes of eastern Washington. It was during this trek to better health that Mattie took the first photographs attributed to her. With her Bull's Eye camera, commonly known as a box camera, she snapped pictures of friends, her family's campsites, trappers; prospectors; miners; packers; pioneer dreamers; and wilderness activities along backwoods trails.
Mattie and her family returned briefly to Seattle when news of the Klondike gold strike reached them because Bill's mother needed extra help running her hotel. Later in 1897, when Mattie suffered a relapse in her health, she contacted her cousin Hattie Needham in Thomson's Landing (later known as Beaton), British Columbia to determine if she and Bill could find work there instead. Fortunately, rich silver-lead deposits had been found in the area so there was plenty of work throughout the West Kootenay district and the family moved again. As they travelled, Bill worked in sawmills and Mattie took in laundry; they finally arrived in Thomson's Landing in June 1898 after walking more than six hundred miles.
By early 1898, Mattie's interest in photography expanded; she purchased a 4"x5" plate camera that offered ground glass focusing, and a multispeed shutter thereby allowing her to keep a more detailed photographic journal of her new life. Curiously, Mattie appears in many of her own photographs. She made this possible by using a long piece of rubber tubing which was attached to her camera's pneumatic shutter at one end with a rubber bulb at the other. Squeezing or stepping on the bulb released the shutter and made an exposure.
Mattie usually spent winter months developing her plates and making prints. She kept two albums: one for herself and one for Henry, a practice which she continued until he was a grown man. It is partly thanks to Henry's album that examples of Mattie's early work exist today. Mattie's own copies were destroyed in a fire when the Gunterman family home burned down in 1927.
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Navigation Bar: VPL 2241; Photographer: Mattie Gunterman; mid-1899, Location: Somewhere between Spokane and the Lardeau; Mattie on a log
Top Right: VPL16727; Date: 188-; Probably La Crosse, WI, USA; Photographer: Unknown; Mattie in her teens
Bottom Left: VPL 2215; 1900; Beaton BC; Photographer: Mattie Gunterman; Mattie with grouse that she shot