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HomeContentsThemes > Early landscape photography of North America

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The movements into the American 'West' between 1840 and 1880 coincided with the birth of photography and as photographers accompanied the explorers, military expeditions, survey teams and railroad gangs they sent back images to the east of the incredible landscapes as they unraveled before them. Some of the photographers are well known for their coverage of the American Civil War (Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Andrew Joseph Russell) whilst another became famous for his scientific studies of motion (Eadweard Muybridge). They produced some of the most enduring images of the landscape and helped to mold the perceptions of the sublime wilderness for generations of Americans.
  • The Jewish painter and photographer Solomon Nunes Carvalho accompanied the 1853/54 expedition of the explorer John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) to locate a suitable route for a transcontinental railway along the 38th parallel. The expedition ended in failure and the Daguerreotypes taken by Carvalho were tragically lost in a hotel fire in New York.
  • Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)
  • John K. Hillers (1843-1925) - After leaving the U.S. Army in 1871 he joined John Wesley Powell's second expedition down the Colorado river.
  • William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) - In 1869 he took approximately 10,000 stereoviews along the 'Union Pacific Railroad' and in the following year he became the official photographer to the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of Ferdinand V. Hayden that surveyed the American West - he stayed with them for eight years.
  • Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) - he worked on a coastal survey for the U.S. Government but as a freelance he traveled widely.
  • Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882) and William H. Bell (1830-1910) accompanied some of The Wheeler Expeditions (1869-1879) to map the lands west of the 100th meridian in the USA.
  • Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902)
  • Carleton Eugene Watkins (1829-1916) Watkins' remarkable photographs of the Yosemite Valley convinced Congress that it needed to be protected and President Lincoln signed the 'Yosemite Bill' in June 1864. A mountain would be named in his honor just as one would be named for Ansel Adams.
  • Charles Leander Weed (1824-1903) is less well known than the others but he was a noted early landscape photographer - he took the first known photographs of the Yosemite Valley in 1859.
1.   The four important surveys of the American West
The early mapping of the American West had fallen to pathfinders and explorers but the American Civil War (1861-1865) had put pressures upon natural resources and Congress appreciated that there had to be topographical surveys and an analysis of the geological resources of country. There were four key surveys from 1867 onwards and each of them was accompanied by one or more photographers who recorded, often for the first time, the varied landscapes.
The four surveys were:
  • Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel - led by Clarence King
    On 2 March 1867 Congress authorized funds for a geological survey along the fortieth parallel that was the projected route for the trancontinental railway. The twenty five year old geologist Clarence King was put in charge as one of his team he appointed a photographer.
    Photographers: Timothy H. O’Sullivan
  • U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey - led by Ferdinand V. Hayden
    Also on 2 March 1867 Congress authorized the General Land Office to carry out a survey of the geological resorces and topographical features of Nebraska. Ferdinand V. Hayden was placed in charge and had considerable experience from previous expeditions. In 1868 and 1869 his work was extended to include Wyoming and Colorado and it evolved into the Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories under the control of the Department of the Interior.
    Photographers: William Henry Jackson
  • Survey west of the 100th Parallel - led by George Montague Wheeler
    In 1869 a further exploration was led by the army engineer Lieutenant George Wheeler to create military maps of the areas as far west as the head of navigation on the Colorado river. In 1871 he mapped the areas of eastern Nevada and Arizona and there was an appreciation that stand alone route maps were insufficient and it would be preferable to map complete areas - on 10 June 1872 Congress allocated funds to complete his survey.
    Photographers: William H. Bell, Timothy H. O’Sullivan
Wheeler Survey Expeditions (1869-1879)
Timothy H. O'Sullivan
Wheeler Survey Members, including George Montague Wheeler; Timothy O'Sullivan 
1874 (ca)
Timothy H. O'Sullivan
Black Canon, Colorado River, From Camp 8, Looking Above (Wheeler Survey) 
Timothy H. O'Sullivan
Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest 
First Lieutenant (later Captain) George Montague Wheeler supervised a series of geographical expeditions between 1869 and 1879 west of the US 100th meridian. The area to be covered was south of the Central Pacific Railroad with the intention of preparing maps and collecting accurate topographical information. Beyond the map making he was to collect information on Indian tribes and the resources of the vast areas covered which now includes the states of New Mexico, California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and Texas. This is an area of 1,443,360 square miles.
The expeditions were accompanied by Timothy O'Sullivan (1840 - 1882) who took the photographs that were a significant part of the undertaking. He recorded the landscapes, the activities of the teams and significant findings such as the carved inscriptions of 17th century Spanish travelers who had passed through what is now the El Morro National Monument (New Mexico).
Another photographer on the expeditions was William Bell (1830 - 1910) and in addition to albumen prints from wet collodion negatives they took stereographic views and portraits of the Indian tribes including the Zuni, Mojave, Navajo, Apache, and Ute.
[The original field notebooks are held by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada at Reno - Wheeler Survey - Field Notebooks Of The U.S. Geographical Survey West Of The 100th Meridian - Collection no. NC319]
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  • River explorations - led by John Wesley Powell
    On 14 May 1869, John Wesley Powell, Professor of Geology at Illinois State Normal University, led a party of nine on a privately funded river expedition out of Green River in Wyoming with the intention of exploring the west. Although the team was reduced by many hardships they passed through the Grand Canyon on 13 August 1869. In later years he was awarded funds by Congress to complete his expeditions. There was no photographer on the first expedition but this lack was remedied on the second and it was one of the oarsmen John K. Hillers who showed an interest in photography and became one of the most respected photographers of the American west.
    Photographers: Elias Olcott Beaman, James Fennemore, John K. Hillers
River explorations - led by John Wesley Powell
E.O. Beaman
The first camp of Powell's Second Expedition 
1871, 4 May
The photograph shows the First Camp of the Second Powell Expedition at Green River, Wyoming (4 May 1871).
Shown from left to right are: Professor Almon Harris Thompson, Andrew Hattan, S.V. Jones, John F. Steward, W.C. Powell, Frank C.A. Richardson, Frederick Dellenbaugh, and F.M. Bishop. Green River, Wyoming. May 4, 1871.
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2.   The railroad photographers
The importance of railroads
Carleton E. Watkins
Central Pacific Ferry Boat "Solano", Pt. Costa 
1876 (ca)
William Henry Jackson
The Royal Gorge, Grand Canyon of the Arkansas 
Alfred Hart
Rounding Cape Horn 
William H. Rau
Cathedral Rocks, Susquehanna River near Meghoppen 
By 1840, the United States had 2,818 miles of track but the awarding of land grants by the government from 1855 onwards encouraged speculation and by the start of the American Civil War in 1861 the network had extensive coverage particularly in the Eastern States with 30,000 miles of tracks. Railways were seen as one means of unifying a vast country at a time when it was being pulled apart by the Civil War and in 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act which authorized the building of the first transcontinental railroad. The rails of Central Pacific and Union Pacific meet at Promontory Summit in Utah on 10 May 1869 for the driving of the golden spike only seven years later. Through the 1880's an additional 70,000 miles were laid with the Northern Pacific completed going from Lake Superior to Seattle (Sept 1883), the Southern Pacific from San Francisco to El Paso and later on to New Orleans, the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Great Northern of "Empire Builder" James Jerome Hill cutting across the northern plains and the Rocky Mountains.
The railroad barons were granted vast tracts of land, built cities and needed passengers and freight. Advertising and political lobbying were essential components of the strategy and regularly photographs were supplied to politicians to encourage development and protection of the wilderness. Photographers like Carleton Eugene Watkins on the Central Pacific, William Henry Jackson and Andrew Joseph Russell on the Union Pacific Railroad, William H. Rau on the Lehigh Valley Railroad from 1895 onwards and Alfred Hart, documented the construction, routes and landscapes. Their photographs of Yosemite and Yellowstone were used to promote the protection of the wilderness.
The photographs of Alexander Gardner were produced in the portfolio Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (Route of the 35th Parallel) which consists of 125 plates from a survey made by the Kansas Pacific Railroad from Saint Louis to San Francisco, California in 1867 and 1868. They went through Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and into California. These are the first photographs known for many of these locations.
[Thanks to Anne Peterson, DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University for her contributions]
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Carleton Watkins and the Yosemite Valley (California, USA)
Carleton E. Watkins
Mirror Lake Yosemite No. 75 
1865-1866 (ca)
Carleton E. Watkins
The Lower Yosemite Fall 418 Ft. No. 56 
Carleton E. Watkins
The Three Brothers, 3818 Feet, Yosemite, California 
1865 (ca)
Carleton E. Watkins
Sentinel, Front View, 3270 ft, Yosemite 
Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) took a large number of photographs of the Yosemite Valley in California (USA) throughout his career and these were used as evidence to support the protection of the natural landscape from logging and homesteading.
References to the valley by early non-native travelers started to appear in the 1830s but it had been known to the Native American Paiute-Miwok tribes of the Southern Sierras long before that. When the California Gold Rush started in 1848 the numbers of miners rapidly increased leading to tensions that led to the Mariposa Indian War. On 27 March 1851 a battalion of soldiers entered the valley and after this its wonders spread to the general populace. In 1859 Charles Leander Weed (1824-1903) took what are thought to be the first daguerreotypes of the valley. Lobbying encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to protect the Mariposa Grove of giant redwoods and the valley in the ‘Yosemite Grant‘ of 30 June 1864. This was the start of the national parks in the United States and photographs were part of the supporting evidence used to justify it.
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These photographs influenced the US government in the move forward and showed the wonders of the 'untouched land'. The fact that these lands were already occupied was not the issue in these photographs.
The American West
Carleton Watkins
Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception 
Douglas R. Nickel
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William Henry Jackson
William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape 
Peter Bacon Hales; & William Henry Jackson (Photographer)
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Human beings only occurred to show the scale of the landscape or the endeavors of man in taming it via the engineering feats of railway cuttings and bridges.
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