By Bill Dobbins
Nowadays, we are very familiar with the impressive landscapes of the American West. We know about incredibly beautiful and awesome natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, and the 61 protected areas designated as US National Parks. But for much of the 19th century, very few had any idea what these places actually looked like. Instead, the public imagination was fueled by stories told by western travelers, tall tales, myths, and legends.
Many thought the descriptions they were hearing about the landscapes of the Far West were nothing more than gross exaggerations – until painters and photographers brought back visual evidence. This was so compelling that it fueled an onset of public interest and tourism that eventually motivated Congress to agree these areas should be preserved and protected.
But the physical and technological difficulty of making photographs like this back in the 1800s was immense. Hauling large view-cameras, tripods, plates and holders through rugged mountainous areas was not an easy task. Often the terrain was too rough for wagons, so photographers relied on mules and burros or packed equipment in on their backs. In the wet-plate era, when it was necessary to coat plates with emulsions just for shooting and then develop them quickly before the chemicals dried, photographers also had to have a portable darkroom immediately available.
Nonetheless, a few intrepid photographers were able to brave these difficulties and hardships and come back from the West with photographs that not only enlightened the public of the day but now serve as an historic record of the wonders encountered on their treks. And one of the most important of these photographers was William Henry Jackson.
William Henry Jackson (April 4, 1843 – June 30, 1942) was an American painter, Civil War veteran, geological survey photographer and an explorer famous for his images of the American West. According to Wikipedia:
“In 1869 Jackson won a commission from the Union Pacific to document the scenery along the various railroad routes for promotional purposes. When his work was discovered by Ferdinand Hayden, who was organizing a geologic survey to explore the Yellowstone River region, he was asked to join the expedition.
The following year, he got a last-minute invitation to join the 1870 U.S. government survey (predecessor of U.S. Geological Survey) of the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains led by Ferdinand Hayden. He also was a member of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 which led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Painter Thomas Moran was also part of the expedition, and the two artists worked closely together to document the Yellowstone region. Hayden’s surveys (usually accompanied by a small detachment of the U.S. Cavalry) were annual multidisciplinary expeditions meant to chart the largely unexplored west, observe flora (plants), fauna (animals), and geological conditions (geology), and identify likely navigational routes, so as official photographer for the survey, Jackson was in a position to capture the first photographs of legendary landmarks of the West. These photographs played an important role in convincing Congress in 1872 to establish Yellowstone National Park, the first national park of the U.S. His involvement with Hayden’s survey established his reputation as one of the most accomplished explorers of the American continent. Among Hayden’s party were Jackson, Moran, geologist George Allen, mineralogist Albert Peale, topographical artist Henry Elliot, botanists, and other scientists who collected numerous wildlife specimens and other natural data.”
Wikipedia goes on to describe how difficult and time consuming it was in the circumstances that Jackson worked in to produce a finished photographic image: “Preparing, exposing, developing, fixing, washing then drying a single image could take the better part of an hour. Washing the plates in 160 °F hot spring water cut the drying time by more than half, while using water from snow melted and warmed in his hands slowed down the processing substantially.”
His photographic division (of five to seven men) carried photographic equipment on the backs of mules and rifles on their shoulders. Jackson’s life experience (for example, his military service, and his peaceful dealings with Indians) was welcomed. The weight of the glass plates and the portable darkroom limited the number of possible exposures on any one trip, and these images were taken in primitive, roadless, and physically challenging conditions. Once when the mule lost its footing, Jackson lost a month’s work, having to return to untracked Rocky Mountain landscapes to remake the pictures, one of which was his celebrated view of the Mount of the Holy Cross.
Despite the delays and setbacks, Jackson returned with conclusive photographic evidence of the various western landmarks that had previously seemed only a fantastic myth: the Grand Tetons, Old Faithful and the rest of the Yellowstone region, Colorado’s Rockies and the Mount of the Holy Cross, and the uncooperative Ute Indians. Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone helped convince the U.S. Congress to make it the first national park in March 1872.
Bill Dobbins is a professional photographer, videographer and writer based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited as fine art in two museums, a number of galleries, and he has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Taschen)
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