Tuesday, January 12, 2016

"never before photographed"

“… the Tetons, never before photographed, now became of the first importance, so far as I was concerned.” (William Henry Jackson 1872; USGS)

In 1872, William Henry Jackson was on his third expedition with the US Geological & Geographical Survey of the Territories. They were returning to Yellowstone, which they surveyed the previous year. In the intervening winter, it had been designated a national park by a unanimous vote of Congress and the signature of President Ulysses S. Grant.

Jackson played a key role in designation, convincing Congress and the public that Yellowstone was special—that the fantastical stories of thundering waterfalls, boiling multi-colored springs, and scalding water shooting hundreds of feet into the air were true. For Jackson was a photographer, and photographs don’t lie.
Grotto Geyser, Yellowstone National Park. “The great amount of steam given off almost entirely conceals the jets of water.” (WHJ 1871; USGS)
The head of the Survey was geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, a visionary. He saw great potential in the American West, and knew that photographs would show those at home what the West offered. In 1870, he recruited Jackson to accompany the Survey through southern Wyoming. He wouldn’t be paid, but would be provided a saddle horse, food, lodging (tent), space in a wagon for his belongings, and a mule to carry his gear on day-trips in search of photos. Finally, Jackson would have personal use of all negatives. The results were successful beyond expectations, both for Hayden (photos for his report) and for Jackson (photos for sale). Hayden appointed Jackson field photographer, a position he held until the Survey became part of the new US Geological Survey in 1879.

• • •

Photo-graphy—light-drawing—was still relatively new. It was only 50 earlier that Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made the first surviving photograph. “The image of objects is represented with a clarity, an astonishing fidelity, complete with myriad details and with nuances of extreme delicacy,” he wrote excitedly to his brother, “and I must say my dear friend, this effect is truly something magical” (Hirsch 2000).

Niépce had coated a small sheet of of pewter with bitumen dissolved in lavender oil, exposed it to the view from his window for hours, and then developed it in a mix of petroleum and lavender oil. The image was poor by today’s standards, uneven and blurred, but the future was clear. It was possible to capture light, and hold it for posterity.
View from Niépce’s window, ca. 1826-27. Source.
The early photos unleashed a powerful human desire for images—though expensive, they were hugely popular. Technology advanced quickly. Innovators came up with better light-sensitive emulsions and surfaces to hold them: silver-iodide on copper, sodium chloride + silver iodide on paper, nitrocellulose + bromide on glass. They converged on a general process whereby light produced a latent (hidden) image, which was revealed when the emulsion was treated with chemicals, i.e. developed. The result was a negative—a reversed image—from which multiple positive prints could be made at reasonable cost.

In the 1870s, the most popular medium by far was the “wet plate.” Wet plates were sensitive enough to capture detailed images in a reasonable amount of time (Jackson typically used exposure times on the order of five seconds for landscapes, known then as "views"). Most exciting—cameras now could be used in the field!
Hayden’s Cathedral in the Uinta Mountains. "Vast piles of purplish compact quartzite, resembling Egyptian pyramids on a gigantic scale …” (WHJ 1870; USGS).
While wet plates were the best system available for field photography, they were not convenient. A photographer made his own immediately before taking a photo. To avoid unwanted exposure, the plate had to be prepared in the dark, quickly placed in the camera and exposed before it dried, and then developed in the dark. In other words, a field photographer had to carry a dark room.
“The pioneer photographer of that time had to be something of a chemist as well as an artist and a mechanic also. He had to carry with him a kind of laboratory with many chemicals, trays, glasses, and other apparatus, for each plate must be prepared on the spot for every exposure.” (Unless indicated otherwise, all quotes are from Jackson and Driggs 1929.)
Jackson made his own portable dark room, actually a dark box:
“For the portable dark room I used a box measuring 30 by 15 by 12 inches. By careful conservation of space, the necessary chemicals and apparatus were stowed in this box. It was convertible into a dark room by attaching to it a folding frame covered with a hood of black and yellow calico, with a baglike opening for the head and shoulders. The arms were left free for the usual operations, which I generally performed in a kneeling position.”
In this position, he would pour a light-sensitive (and combustible!) thick syrupy solution onto a glass plate, and then tilt the plate back and forth to produce an even coat.

Jackson's dark box was only barely “portable.” With camera, dark box, glass plates, water keg and chemicals, his gear weighed on the order of several hundred pounds. Yet he was rarely deterred. On the Survey’s first trip to Yellowstone, Jackson was determined to capture an image of the spectacular Tower Falls, despite great difficulties:
“Rather than take the dark box down to the bottom [200 feet down], I worked from the top. Backing my plate with wet blotting paper, and wrapping the holder in a wet towel and the dark cloth, I scrambled and slid down to the rocky bed of the stream, with plate holder and camera in hand. After taking the picture, I had a slow, laborious climb back again, and reached the top out of breath in a wringing perspiration. Four round trips [i.e. four exposures] gave me the desired number of negatives, a full half day’s work …” 
Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park (WHJ 1871; USGS).
In more hospitable terrain, a negative could be produced in about 45 minutes, and if multiple views were made from a single spot, the time was even less—sometimes as little as 15 minutes. In the badlands of southwest Wyoming, Jackson set a personal record, making 17 negatives in one day!
Blacks Fork badlands (WHJ 1870; USGS).
By 1872, views of the American West were in demand—the bigger the better. But it was impossible to make enlargements of any quality, so a photograph was only as large as the camera. On earlier expeditions, Jackson carried cameras measuring 8 x 10 inches and 6.5 x 8.5 inches (his compact!). In 1872, he added one that was 11 x 14 inches. The plates were too large for his dark box, so he put together a “dark tent.”
Jackson emerges from the dark tent to find a visitor! (sketch by Jackson, also a skilled artist).
Before reaching Yellowstone, the party split. Half went with Hayden by way of the route taken in 1871. James Stevenson led the rest of the group, including Jackson, through Idaho toward the southwest part of the Park. En route, Jackson and a small party made a three-day side trip to capture the first images of the Tetons. (They photographed the west side of the range; today most photos of the Tetons are taken from the east).
“… we had a glorious near view of the Three Tetons with the Grand Teton, 13,747 feet in height, directly in front of us. We remained here the greater part of the day making negatives—11x14, 8x10, and stereoscopic, in panoramic as well as single compositions. It was a perfect day, clear and cold, but with enough warmth in the sun’s rays to melt the snow in trickling rivulets on the southerly exposures, thus keeping up the water supply required for plate washing.” (While Jackson and an assistant took photos, the others gathered any water they could find—or produce by melting snow.)
The results were spectacular—clearly worth their struggles to reach the airy vantage points. “… troubles were soon forgotten as the glorious panorama opened up before us.”
The pioneer photographer’s workshop on the plateau west of the Tree Tetons. (WHJ 1872; USGS)
An enlarged clip from the photo above shows the detail that could be captured with the larger camera.
Click on image to view dark tent, box of glass plates, various lenses lower right, and other gear. William Henry Jackson is kneeling. Assistant Charles R. Campbell holds the dark tent.

When he joined Hayden's Survey, Jackson was only in his late twenties. He would live a long and active life, dying in 1942 at the age of 99. It’s mind-boggling to consider the progress in photography he witnessed. Even by 1929, almost anyone could capture an image for posterity. A photographer no longer had to be “a chemist as well as an artist and a mechanic also.”
“The days of pioneer photography, too, were brought to an end with the close of the seventies. A new era of dry plates, compact cameras, enlargements, films, and kodaks had come. With these handier appliances, during the half century that has since elapsed, I have followed my own lead in quest of strange and beautiful scenes in our own and other lands. None of the later experiences, however, can ever bring more delightful memories than those of the earlier days, when I was doing my part to help reveal the scenic and other wonders of our Rocky Mountain region to the world.”
William Henry Jackson in the field (NPS).

• • •

This post introduces a new project—improving my photography. Coincidentally, Anne McKinnell recently provided five tips for improving your photography. I'm starting with no. 2: “Learn your camera settings.” Sigh ... I've tried this before. But surely the details of aperture, shutter speed, focus, sensitivity and such will be easier to remember if I learn the basics and general evolution of the camera. And surely that will easier if I follow the great pioneer photographer, William Henry Jackson, on his travels around Wyoming.


Hirsch, R. 2000. Seizing the light; a history of photography. McGraw-Hill.

Jackson, William H., in collaboration with Howard R. Driggs. 1929. The Pioneer Photographer; Rocky Mountain Adventures with a Camera. Yonkers-on-Hudson, NY: World Book Company.

Prescott, J., ed. 1994. The Unspoiled West. NY: Smithmark Publishers.


  1. The lengths they went to! Photography is so much easier now, and yet it's important still to understand the basics. I can remember taking a black and white photography course back in college. We developed our own photos, and it gave me deeper appreciation for the craft. Good luck with your project! Your photos are already fantastic, so I look forward to all your new ones (and your new posts)!

    1. Thanks, Beth. I appreciate your encouragement a LOT!

  2. I really enjoyed this, Hollis. I might even point my remote sensing class to it when I talk about the history of remote sensing, which of course goes back to the history of photography. I don't know how far down this road you want to go, but you might enjoy Rachel Sailor's (UW Art Dept. professor) on the history of photography in the west.

    1. thanks, Ken, I appreciate the encouraging comment! I will pick up Rachel's book today at Coe. Not sure where I'm headed, that's the way it seems to go in blogging. In any case, it's hard to resist these pioneering figures, neat to see and read about the West in their day.

  3. Hi. Please don't get so good that you feel you can't include your dogs in your photography! They always look so happy.

    1. Don't worry, MBenson ... not much risk of "so good" And life wouldn't be nearly as much fun without my happy dogs!

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