Saturday, June 22, 2013

Enduring Images of the American West

Several surveys and expeditions of the American West were sponsored by the US government in the latter half of the 19th century. Painters, naturalists, and photographers joined these expeditions to record and document their encounters in diaries, sketches, paintings, and photographs.

An enduring legacy from these expeditions are collections of stunningly beautiful sepia-toned photographs using state-of-the-art photographic equipment of the day.

Notable among the photographers who documented the American West were William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan.

Crater of the Castle and the Crested Hot Spring (1875?-1885?)
by William Henry Jackson (1843 - 1942)

William Henry Jackson joined the 1870 and 1871 Ferdinand Hayden expeditions of the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains. Hayden and his men were dispatched to chart the west, identify navigational routes, and to observe plants, animals, and geological conditions. Jackson's photographs were instrumental in establishing Yellowstone National Park.

Jackson's photographic equipment included:

Timothy O'Sullivan joined several extended expeditions as a photographer including the United States Geological Survey exploration of the 40th parallel (1867 to 1869), and the survey west of the 100th meridian for the War Department (1871 to 1874).

A view across the Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho (1874)
by Timothy O'Sullivan (1840 - 1882)

The view cameras of the era used glass photographic plates. The photographer had to coat, expose, and develop the image onsite before the collodion emulsion dried.

Depending on the light conditions, exposure times varied between 5 seconds and 20 minutes. The image the photographer had to compose was upside-down because the direct optics from the lens rendered it upside-down on the ground-glass screen of the view finder.
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed ... We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”
― Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water