with Sandy Barnard
Photographing Custer's Battlefield
Photographing Custer's Battlefield: The Images of Kenneth F. Roahen
is a beautiful study
of the battlefield through photography both historical and current. It is
also a perfect complement volume for your earlier book, Where Custer Fell
that you wrote along with Jim Brust and the late Brian Pohanka.
Bob Reece: Did you plan to do this type of book before the Roahen
collection was given to the Big Horn County Museum, or was seeing the
collection your inspiration?
Sandy Barnard: Actually, neither scenario totally fits. As a journalist, I
have always recognized situations that make for “a good news story.” Thus,
in 2009, when I read in the news media about Mrs. Ooley’s donation of her
Uncle Kenneth Roahen’s photo collection to the Big Horn County Museum, I
made it a point to visit the museum that summer. As I explain in my book,
my initial review convinced me of its publishing value, but the museum
staff was still sorting things out. Later that year, illness struck me and
put me on the sidelines for 18 months. By June 2011, I was able to get
things rolling on the project.
B.R. It appears Roahen was a fixture of the battlefield during his time.
What was his inspiration and purpose, do you think, in his photographing
so much of the battlefield?
S.B. Actually, we need to avoid putting Ken Roahen on too high a pedestal.
He would probably be shocked today to learn that someone has written a
book about him and his photographs! I think he was quite similar to many
folks today. They are more “buffs” – Custer, battle, and/or Indian – than
pompous experts. Many of Roahen’s acquaintances shared his interests in
the history of the field of battle and the 1876 event itself. As we do
today, they sat around yakking and sharing their views and opinions about
the events of 1876 or other Indian wars engagements. As a photographer,
though, Roahen went a step further than most of us today. Many of us may
take pictures when we are there, but for our own enjoyment. Ken Roahen had
more professional goals in mind. However, just as often, Ken Roahen may
have had no specific inspiration or broad purpose in shooting his photos;
he certainly would not have imagined how someone like me might make a big
historical to-do about his work some 40 years after his death.
Undoubtedly, he viewed himself as a professional photographer in that he
often was paid for his images, but his real job involved protecting
wildlife and Mother Nature. On occasion, he shot images for other people,
such as battlefield superintendents, especially Ed Luce, or for writers
and researchers, such as J.W. Vaughn. But more often than not, I think his
primary purpose was simply to visit the field, along with his buddies, try
to unravel the mysteries of 1876, and enjoy himself – just as many of us
do every June or at other times! One difference: His cameras were never
B.R. Many students of the battle have their favorite areas of the
battlefield to study. Do you know if Roahen had one?
S.B. This is a hard question to answer because the number of his existing
battlefield images, as a sample of his work, is small. That makes it
difficult to pinpoint an answer for such a question. Purely speculation on
my part, I would consider Roahen a battlefield traditionalist. That is, he
focused most often on Last Stand Hill from a wide variety of angles. Last
Stand Hill continues today to capture our interest. If a tourist takes
only one picture on the battlefield, it undoubtedly will be of Last Stand
B.R. Makes complete sense, Sandy. How about you. Do you have a section of
the battlefield that has captured your interest over all others?
S.B. Well, I came to my interest in the Little Big Horn later in my life
through my interest in the journalistic career of reporter Mark Kellogg.
Beginning in 1980, I spent oodles of time trying to unravel the facts
about him, and especially where on the field he may have died. That was
one of the reasons it took me so long to complete my biography on Kellogg.
I kept changing my mind about his death site. I am more comfortable now
with my placement, as I have described in the aerial photos section of my Roahen book. However, let me give credit to such researchers as Rich Fox,
Mike Donahue, the late Joe Sills and the late Brian Pohanka. I learned
much from them. But on the day in September 2011 when I scanned the hard
copy prints from the Roahen collection in the museum, I became convinced
that I finally had the evidence I needed to pinpoint Kellogg’s death site.
So that’s a direct result of my Roahen research, following some 30 years
after the bulk of my Kellogg inquiries. The moral of the day? Keep on
trekking across the battlefield, keep on digging!
B.R. Yes, there is always another layer to explore regarding this battle.
Is there anything of your work with the Roahen collection that had to
wait, or did you cover it all in this book?
S.B. Surprisingly, from start to finish in submitting my manuscript to
Oklahoma Press, I spent only 2 ½ years on this project – which, of course,
greatly depended on the earlier 10-12 years my colleagues and I spent
preparing what became the Where Custer Fell book. Production of this new
book took two more years. At some point in production for any book,
everything is set in cement. Thou shalt not change anything any more. Even
so, during the book’s production and since, the Crow’s Nest story has
continued to interest me and led to further study. Let me just say that
the book’s section on the Crow’s Nest isn’t truly finished. The Crow’s
Nest has replaced Kellogg’s death site as my point of interest these days.
B.R. You mention in the book that Roahen did not document what lenses he
used while taking his photos. I imagine this made it very challenging for
you to get a comparison shot. How did you manage that?
S.B. Again, Roahen was largely shooting photographs for himself some 60,
70 to 80 years ago. On such occasions, or even whenever he shot photos for
someone else, he had no need to document such details. Of course, our
modern digital cameras – even our iPhones – are “smarter” than any
equipment he had. Our modern lenses are more sophisticated than those he
had access to in his prime. So my goal was more to recreate his images,
preferably from the exact spot where he stood. But such precision in the
absence of GPS coordinates and the like was virtually impossible.
Most of my photographs were taken over a nearly two-week period at the
battlefield in late September and early October 2012. For 95 percent of
the photos, I believe I stood just about on Roahen’s original ground. To
do so, I relied on what I saw in the original image itself, looking for
key terrain features, especially in the backgrounds, the slightest of
rolls in the landscape, fence lines, buildings, water courses, and the
like. I wasn’t satisfied until such points “matched up” — original Roahen
photo to my modern reshoot. That often necessitated moving about in
various directions, while always internally doubting and debating the
outcome. My wife Betty was especially helpful by offering another person’s
view of the proposed comparisons. For that other 5 percent, I think I
offer a satisfactory recreation that shows Roahen’s ground of so many
years ago as it appears today. I would add that over the winter of
2012-2013, I restudied the photos we had matched up the previous
September-October 2012. As a result, in June 2013, I retook about 20 of
the photographs from the previous fall, just to obtain a more accurate
depiction for the book.
I should add that a number of other people assisted me with interpreting
photographs, locating sites as well as reshooting some of the photos.
Dennis Fox and Mike Donahue truly understand the lay of the land around
the battlefield, like few others. Kevin Galvin of the Custer Association
of Great Britain, Cliff Hamby, Bruce Liddic, and “my photo pard,” Jim
Brust, all contributed to my field efforts in innumerable ways.
Needless to say, Mrs. Elaine Ooley is the real catalyst for the project
through her decades-long efforts to preserve her uncle’s photo collection.
Finally, most of my reshoots were taken with my Nikon D7000 camera and my
28-200 mm lens. For truly up close images, I used one of my wide angle
lenses. For views that involved greater distances, I changed to my 70-300
lens. To complete the task of settling on matching Roahen’s original,
Adobe Photoshop allowed me to edit images accordingly.
One sad postscript to the project: In October 2013, four months after I
took the last photographs the previous June, I had just finished speaking
to the English Westerners Society in London. I foolishly laid my camera
backpack down and someone, as our British friends say, “nicked” my bag
containing my workhorse D7000 camera. I replaced it with a D7100.
B.R. I’m sorry about the loss of your camera. But, good things came to
pass: you now have a Nikon D7100. I shoot with the D7100 as well. Are
there any other photographers of this unique battlefield that you hope to
study in similar fashion to your project with Roahen?
S.B. I would like to do so, but I think my age may be catching up to me.
Our favorite battlefield is a pretty rugged arena. In 1980, on my first
visit to Little Big Horn, I was only age 36. I was in pretty good shape,
too. This summer, however, finds me at 72, or twice my age in 1980. Along
the way, I have had to overcome at least four serious illnesses. My health
may be great now, but I certainly realize I am no longer 36! Just like
David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, you have to know when to
exit the stage. Even if, like Papi, you’re still hitting home runs as if
you were half your age! So I can’t see myself clambering down the Reno-Benteen
bluffs to the Retreat Crossing any more. Ah, but to climb back up Roahen’s
Crow’s Nest, now, that certainly appeals! We’ll see!
More important, part of Roahen’s uniqueness as a photographer lies in his
longevity. Virtually all the other photographers whose work appeared in
Where Custer Fell were drop-in visitors to Little Big Horn. They came on a
visit for a day or two, they shot a few images, and that was it. They
didn’t leave us a true body of work focused on Little Big Horn. No one
else comes even close to matching Roahen’s photographic output across the
more than 40 years of his efforts. That is quite apparent now in his
collection at the Big Horn County Museum.
B.R. Great photos come from a photographer who knows his subject. In this
case, Roahen photographing Custer Battlefield, he knew the lay of the land
better than most who came before and after him to shoot for just a day or
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on Roahen and your new book. One
last question: What projects are you working on now?
S.B. You’re welcome, Bob. I am working on several new projects, but the
most active is one that the University of Oklahoma Press asked me to
tackle a year ago. It involves editing a series of Civil War letters
written by Lt. Edward Gilbert Granger, 5th Michigan Cavalry Regiment. For
his second of his two years in the Union Army, he served as an aide on
Brigadier General Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade Staff. His letters are
quite enlightening about Granger’s own experiences and those of his
regiment and his brigade. Too, they present thought-provoking insights
into the personality of a very young George Armstrong Custer.
Unfortunately, Granger was killed in action in August 1864. I expect to
submit my manuscript to Oklahoma Press by the end of the summer.
(Back to Top)