One day in the summer of 1899, a Chicago & Northwestern train pulled into Duluth, Minnesota, carrying with it a private “photography car” owned by the Detroit Photographic Company. The sight of it probably drew little attention. The DPC was one of the largest publishers of color postcards and photographic views and used several such special cars to haul their photographers around the country to capture images to publish. Inside this particular train car, however, sat one of the greatest landscape and railroad photographers of the nineteenth century, William Henry Jackson. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Jackson’s stunning photographs of wilderness landscapes, diminishing native tribes, boomtowns, and railroad construction had preserved views of the mythical and fading American West. His otherworldly images of the Yellowstone region in northwestern Wyoming had brought Jackson great acclaim—and helped create the country’s first national park. The handful of photographs he made in Duluth are no-less remarkable and only add to his reputation as one of the finest photographers of the American landscape.
William Henry Jackson’s long life began in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843—just four years after the advent of photography. Reared mainly in Vermont, his interest and natural talents in painting and drawing snared him an early job with a local photographer, adding color to black-and-white photographs. Although he wasn’t involved with taking any actual photographs at that time, he became quite familiar with the technical aspects of the business.
After enlisting in the Civil War and serving a year in the Union ranks, Jackson returned to Vermont to an even better-paying job doing the same work with another photographer. But a trivial lover’s spat with his fiancée resulted in a broken engagement that sent Jackson into a tizzy. Dejected, embarrassed, and hoping to forget everything, he quit his job and left town. A chance meeting in New York City with a war buddy led him to St. Joseph, Missouri, where the two signed on as poorly paid and overworked bullwhackers on a wagon train to Salt Lake City. Along the way, Jackson captured some of those miserable days and dismal events on paper, making sketches when time allowed. He eventually made his way to California, but soon after arriving in Los Angeles, Jackson’s pride and embarrassment was superseded by a strong desire to return home. But he never made it to Vermont. After helping drive a herd of maverick horses east, Jackson settled in Omaha, where he hired on as an assistant for a photographer named Hamilton. Within just a few months he bought out the business and he and two of his brothers started Jackson Brothers Photography.
Living the prior year in the elements (and the year spent roughing it in Civil War camps) had conditioned Jackson to the outdoors, and soon the confines of studio work began to wear thin. So while his brothers ran the shop, Jackson began traveling around Nebraska in a specially-rigged wagon, photographing local scenery and Native Americans. Besides his large scale (8 x 10) camera, Jackson carried a stereo camera equipped with two brass-barreled Willard lenses to produce three-dimensional stereoviews, which were very popular at the time. This camera produced twin images on a single glass negative that would be printed onto card stock for viewing.
Jackson’s photographs garnered some local interest and sales, including a large order from the Union Pacific Railroad. Jackson and Arundel C. Hull—a newly hired assistant from St. Paul, Minnesota—were given train passes that allowed them to move about the line freely, shooting trains, track construction, and natural scenery along the route as the Union Pacific made its way westward across Nebraska and Wyoming.
Nineteenth-century Field Work
In today’s digital world, taking photographs is ridiculously easy and inexpensive. Most people just point their phones to snap a photo—or even take a video. Today, seasoned photographers armed with sophisticated digital cameras can easily produce hundreds if not thousands of decent photos in a single day—and they can all fit on a memory card the size of a postage stamp. But in 1869 the state-of-the-art outdoor photography entailed hauling around bulky wooden cameras and heavy—and extremely crucial—tripods, not to mention all the materials and sometimes caustic chemicals necessary to make, develop, and print the fragile glass plates upon which each image was exposed.
This “collodian wet plate process” produced a fine-grained, high-resolution glass-plate negative capable of producing an unlimited number of prints, making it much-more-desirable (and profitable) than the old daguerreotype method, which could produce only a single print on a copper plate. Operating income often came through the selling of prints while on location, so paper stock for printing and mounting also had to be on hand. It all meant lugging around of a whole lot of gear, upwards to three hundred pounds worth.
“We may have looked like we were ready for a picnic,” Jackson said, “but it wasn’t one.”
The preparation and development of the camera plates had to be done onsite, immediately before and after each exposure, which meant the photographer also needed some sort of “portable” darkroom. Jackson’s first such facility fit on the back of his wagon. Later he would develop a smaller, more-portable version that could be carried on the back of a pack mule.
The production of a single photograph—from coating the glass plate, taking the shot, to developing and fixing the negative—took, on average, about 45 minutes. With his landscape work, Jackson usually strove to get the most depth of field by “stopping down” his lens—making the aperture as small as possible. This meant longer exposure times. If all went well, he could make eight to ten usable exposures a day.
By the time Jackson visited Duluth, the old wet-plate method had long been replaced by the much more accommodating “dry-plate process” using a gelatin-based emulsion invented by English photographer Richard Maddox and made readily available in America by George Eastman. Pre-coated glass plates could be purchased in bulk, exposed in the camera, then put away for later development. Dry plates also allowed for more sensitive emulsions and shorter exposure times.
Jackson Finds Success
Back in 1868, Jackson was a slave to the technology of the day, but he (with Hull’s help) made good use of it along the expanding Union Pacific railroad that summer, producing what Jackson referred to as the “finest assortment of negatives that had yet come out of the West.”
The next spring—May 10, 1869—the tracks of the westbound Union Pacific officially joined those of the eastbound Central Pacific with the driving of a golden spike at Promontory Point in Utah. Jackson failed to photograph the ceremony; he was too busy marrying Mollie Greer.
Even without a “golden spike” photo, Jackson’s Union Pacific photos were a tremendous success, both for the railroad—which used them to advertise their trains and new routes to the public—and for Jackson, who sold reprints to a market hungry for views of scenery they had either seen or someday hoped to see. This included an order for 10,000 prints from a prestigious publisher and photographic firm in New York. The sale not only added to Jackson’s pocketbook but also to his professional status among the top photographers of the time.
The Union Pacific images also presented Jackson with one of the greatest opportunities of his life. In 1870 Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the recently created United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, arrived at Jackson’s Omaha shop unannounced with a proposition. He had seen Jackson’s Union Pacific photographs—Hayden admired the compositions and use of natural landscape—and felt Jackson was exactly the photographer he needed for his upcoming survey of the central Rocky Mountain region. Jackson recognized the prestige he’d gain working under the aegis of the powerful government agency and agreed to join. He sold his Omaha business and moved his family to Washington, D.C., and spent the next eight years with Hayden and the Survey photographing the western territories.
Click on “2” for part 2….