Wow Photo Wednesday
Today's "Wow" goes to one of the biggest names in 19th century photography, William Henry Jackson. Jackson's photographs, reproduced by the millions, brought beautiful, often colored, images of the Great American West to living rooms around the world, confirming people's suspicions that the West really was the magical, beautiful, and wonder-filled place they had heard about. Sets of Jackson's postcards, cabinet cards, stereo cards and larger prints were sold far and wide, to tourists visiting the actual locations, and to collectors, teachers and individuals throughout the United States and Europe.
Jackson was also a painter, a Civil War veteran, a geological survey photographer and an explorer. And to confirm his status as an American icon, he was a great-great nephew of Samuel Wilson, the progenitor of America's national symbol Uncle Sam.
Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843, as the first of seven children to George Hallock Jackson and Harriet Maria Allen. Harriet, a talented water-colorist, was a graduate of the Troy Female Academy, later the Emma Willard School. Painting was Henry's passion from a very young age, and by age 19 he had become a skillful, talented artist of American pre-Civil War Visual Arts, of whom Orson Squire Fowler wrote as being "excellent as a painter."
After his childhood in Troy, New York, and Rutland, Vermont, Jackson enlisted in October 1862 as a 19-year-old private in Company K of the 12th Vermont Infantry of the Union Army. Jackson spent much of his free time sketching drawings of his friends and various scenes of Army camp life that he sent home to his family as his way of letting them know he was safe. He served in the American Civil War for nine months, including (only) one major battle, the Battle of Gettysburg. Jackson spent most of his tour on garrison duty and helped guard a supply train during the engagement. His regiment mustered out on July 14, 1863. Jackson then returned to Rutland, where he worked as an artistic painter in post-Civil War American society. Having broken his engagement to Miss Carolina Eastman, he left Vermont for the American West.
In 1866 Jackson boarded a Union Pacific Railroad train and traveled until it reached the end of the line at that time, about one hundred miles west of Omaha, Nebraska, where he then joined a wagon train heading west to Great Salt Lake as a bullwhacker, on the Oregon Trail. In 1867 along with his brother Edward Jackson he settled down in Omaha and entered the photography business. On ventures that often lasted for several days, Jackson acted as a "missionary to the Indians" around the Omaha region, and it was there that Jackson made his now famous photographs of the American Indians: Osages, Otoes, Pawnees, Winnebagoes and Omahas.
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. He participated in both the 1870 and 1871 Hayden Geological Surveys, 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 (accompanied usually by a small detachment of the U.S. Cavalry) were annual multidisciplinary expeditions meant to chart the largely unexplored west, observe flora, fauna, and geological conditions, and identify likely navigational routes. As official photographer for the survey, Jackson was in a position to capture the first photographs of legendary landmarks of the West. His involvement with Hayden's survey established his reputation as one of the most accomplished explorers of the American continent.
Jackson worked in multiple camera and plate sizes, under conditions that were often incredibly difficult. His photography was based on the collodion process invented in 1848 and published in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer. Jackson traveled with as many as three camera-types — a stereographic camera (for stereoscope cards), a "whole-plate" or 8x10" plate-size camera, and one even larger, as large as 18x22." These cameras required fragile, heavy glass plates (photographic plates), which had to be coated, exposed, and developed onsite, before the wet-collodion emulsion dried. Without light metering equipment or sure emulsion speeds, exposure times required inspired guesswork, between five seconds and twenty minutes depending on light conditions.
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 5 to 7 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.
He continued traveling on the Hayden Surveys until the last one in 1878. Jackson later established a studio in Denver, Colorado and produced a huge inventory of national and international views. Commissioned to photograph for western state exhibitions at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, he eventually produced a final portfolio of views of the just-shuttered "White City" for Director of Works and architect Daniel Burnham. From 1890 to 1892 Jackson produced photographs for several railroad lines (including the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) and the New York Central) using 18 x 22-inch glass plate negatives. The B&O used his photographs in their exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition.
Thrust into financial exigencies by the Panic of 1893, Jackson accepted a commission by Marshall Field to travel the world photographing and gathering specimens for a vast new museum in Chicago; his pictures and reports were published by Harper's Weekly magazine. He returned to Denver and shifted into publishing; in 1897 he sold his entire stock of negatives and his own services to the Detroit Publishing Co. (formerly called the Detroit Photographic Company, owned by William A. Livingstone), after the company had acquired the exclusive ownership and rights to the photochrom process in America. Jackson joined the company in 1898 as president - just when the Spanish–American War gained the nation's fervent interest - bringing with him an estimated 10,000 negatives which provided the core of the company's photographic archives, from which they produced pictures ranging from postcards to mammoth-plate panoramas.
During its height, the Detroit Publishing Company drew upon 40,000 negatives for its publishing effort, and had sales of seven million prints annually. Traveling salesmen, mail order catalogues, and a few retail stores aggressively sold the company's products. The company maintained outlets in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Zurich, and also sold their images at popular tourist spots and through the mail. At the height of its success, the company employed some forty artisans and a dozen or more traveling salesmen. In a typical year they would publish an estimated seven million prints.
With the declining sale of photographs and postcards during World War I, and the introduction of new and cheaper printing methods used by competing firms, the Detroit Publishing Company went into receivership in 1924, and in 1932 the company's assets were liquidated.
The Denver Public Library has 371 William Henry Jackson photographs in our online Digital Collections, and you can see a selection in the gallery linked below, or search all of the Library's Jackson photos here, and another 4,200 owned by History Colorado, here. Our photographs, photochroms, stereographs and mammoth glass plate negatives were acquired over the years piecemeal, often as parts of larger manuscript collections. Content for this blog was adapted from wikipedia.
"Wow Photo Wednesday" celebrates photographs in the Denver Public Library's Digital Collections that have "The Wow Factor" and that highlight the myriad delightful nuggets in our database.
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