THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN WEST
HENRY JACKSON and ALEX MARTIN,
mammoth-sized albumen prints and photochroms.
by Mt. Gothic Tomes and Reliquary
at Rijks Family Gallery, 310 Second Street,
Levine, Mt. Gothic Tomes and Reliquary
Henry Jackson was a myth-maker, an early photographer with a majestic
vision of the American West.
And, astoundingly enough, he made myths with only glass-plates and
a box-camera. To
accomplish this, he climbed – heavy equipment in hand -- Mesa Verde’s
steep canyons, trekked through the great expanse of Yellowstone, summited
the highest Colorado peaks, journeyed through the labyrinths of the Grand
Canyon, found his way into inaccessible western mining camps, and aligned
himself with the most harrowing engineering feats along Colorado’s
narrow-gauge railroad routes.
And he did this all before cameras had shutters and the American
West was tamed.
Jackson did have the benefit of burros, portable dark rooms, wet
gelatin plates, dry gelatin plates, fixing baths, and so on, but success
on its own in such primitive working conditions made Jackson himself a
then there was his exceptionally long life, spanning the years 1843 to
1942; and his photographic innovation, and his perpetual evolution with
the latest in camera technology – it seems Jackson never stopped
working, never stopped promoting, never ceased evolving his perspective.
He was a legend who made myths, growing with the incredible
transformations of the American West, his vision the vision of millions.
comprehend the significance of Jackson’s work, imagine a special train
– that of The Denver & Rio Grande Railway – edging like a hesitant
bull along a slim, worm-like path, high above Colorado’s Animas River,
deep in the heart of the San Juan Mountains.
The narrow gauge rail bed is cut horizontally into the
perpendicular side of a massive granite mountain.
At least that’s the way it appears from the vantage point Jackson
has taken hundreds of feet below.
A Baldwin locomotive is pulling just two cars -- a passenger and a
caboose – but still, it steams cautiously along the thin shelf.
Suddenly, a cord is pulled.
And that’s it, the signal is given.
The mighty steam-powered bull lumbers to a stop.
From below, the train seems to precariously cling to the
precipitous cliff wall: technology co-existing with nature.
And that’s it -- exactly the vision Jackson wants!
He opens the lens on his large format camera.
Light streams in and reacts with the sensitive gelatin on the
mammoth-sized (21 inches by 17 inches) glass plate.
A short pause, and then Jackson closes the lens.
That’s it! another myth created.
the early 19th century few Eastern Americans ventured west to explore the
country’s distant territories.
Yet, those untamed western landscapes enthralled the Eastern
populace, as long, of course, as the adventure and danger they represented
could be safely viewed from afar.
That fascination with the American West has never really waned,
despite the encroachment of civilization, industrialization and
myth those wild and wondrous panoramic landscapes evoke remain a viable
part of American culture today.
This is rarely more evident than when looking through an old estate
in, say, New York, Philadelphia or Boston and finding western landscapes
by William Henry Jackson, and other early American photographers still
hanging on walls -- over a hundred and thirty years after they were taken.
Obviously, the original owners no longer reside between the
Victorian lath-and plaster, but the myth of the open, unbridled western
landscape remains just as powerful a myth today as it was when captured on
Between 1803 and 1853, the U.S. Government, through both purchase
and war, acquired enormous territories west of the Mississippi, an area
totaling millions of acres.
The landscapes these territories held were reported to be
spectacular and awe-inspiring; filled with natural wonders, numerous
Native American tribes, endless prairies, incalculable mineral resources,
never before seen animal life, and unimaginable opportunities.
Despite a long list of government incentives, highly encouraging
military reconnaissance, promises of riches and a new life, most Americans
from crowded Eastern cities simply could not be induced to venture into
the Western frontier.
It was not so much that they were apathetic to the possibilities
the new West had to offer, even though many endured poor working
conditions, unhealthy environments, and lackluster opportunity.
It was more that the words of the government, journalists, and
promoters just weren’t enough to inspire them to risk everything
migrating to unknown regions.
public inertia lasted years after the Lewis and Clark explorations; but
general attitude slowly changed with the confluence of several watershed
events: the practical implementation of the steam engine in travel; the
economic Panic of 1847; settlement of the war with Mexico in 1848; the
1849 California Gold Rush; the 1850s transcontinental railroad surveys;
the 1870s Hayden surveys of the western territories; and the use of
photographs in newspapers, magazines, and other promotions.
Of all the incentives the government employed to encourage people
to migrate none was as effective as the illustration.
Without question, the artist’s work, such as a steel-engraving,
had its significant impacts.
magazines, broadsides, hand-bills, and books also had their positive
effects on the American public; and through these media interest in
western developments spread.
The “word” traveled even faster after 1861 when the overland
telegraph united east and west coasts.
But language alone still could not compete with illustrations in Harper’s
Weekly and Frank Leslie’s
illustrations and steel-engravings served as basic constructs for the
imagination, assisting the average American in “seeing” what Albert
Bierstadt, William Henry Holmes, and Thomas Moran had encountered during
their journeys. People
could gasp, gaze in wonder, chatter about the fantastic landscapes the
American West had to offer.
But, in essence, artists’ engravings only complimented the
cartography of the day.
It was the photograph that actually performed best in conjuring
enthralling myths of the American West, especially photographs taken by
such accomplished landscape photographers as William Henry Jackson,
Carleton Watkins, Charles L. Weed, A. J. Russell, and Timothy
landscape photograph enabled the viewer to witness a scene, be a part of
it, as if through a window as opposed to just on a page.
the American West
Henry Jackson was born in 1843. As
a young man he was strongly influenced by the Hudson River School and was
often seen sketching the Adirondack scenery, near Keeseville, New York.
Jackson attained his first paying position in 1858 as a
“landscape retoucher and colorist.”
He worked for C.C. Schoonmaker, a photographer with a River Street
studio in Troy, New York. Schoonmaker
was instrumental in teaching Jackson how to use a shutter-less box-camera
and develop glass-plate exposures. In
1864, Jackson worked for A.F. Styles at the Vermont Gallery of Art.
There, Jackson further developed his talent for landscape
photography and hand-tinting. Two
years later, Jackson decided to follow the men he admired most -- Fremont,
Gunnison, Powell, Bonneville -- into the western frontier.
Omaha, Jackson signed up as a bullwhacker for one of Ed Owens freight
trains. It rolled out several
days later along the Oregon Trail. The
journey took Jackson to places he’d never imagined, had him witnessing
events he would have never believed possible, kept him working and alert
and constantly challenged. He
was seduced and wanted more. Months
later, in May 1867, and not long after he arrived in the small town of Los
Angeles, Jackson joined the McGannigan-Kelly party and drove a hundred
unbroken horses back to Omaha. Throughout
his journey, Jackson toted pens, pencils and sketch pads; kept a diary,
and recorded in word and picture all the memorable locations and events he
had experienced. It was filled
with the exhilaration and intrigue; and there was no question: he was
anxious to return to the West. Next
time Jackson was determined to go back as an artist and documenter of the
West’s wondrous landscapes.
quickly found work with the Hamilton Photography Studio of Omaha.
By the end of 1867, he, along with his two brothers -- Edward and
Frederick -- owned the studio on Douglas and Fifteenth streets.
From that point on, William Henry Jackson would dedicate his life
to photography and the marketing of the American West.
He began by photographing the Native America people of the
Mid-West: the Osage, Otoe, Pawnee, Ponca, Winnebago, and Omaha.
Jackson sold these images to tourists.
Then, in late 1868, Jackson signed his first contract to photograph
the scenery along the western route of the Union Pacific.
This project kept Jackson productive through 1869.
Then, in July 1870, Ferdinand V. Hayden, medical doctor and
geologist, asked Jackson to join the U.S. Department of Interior’s
surveys of the American West.
Jackson did not immediately realize the enormous possibilities of
Hayden’s offer, he soon did. In
the first three years, Jackson extensively photographed the natural
wonders of Yellowstone, and then the historical ones of Mesa Verde.
He remained with the Hayden surveys for nearly a decade, and in
that time explored and catalogued Anasazi ruins, encouraged Congress to
transform Yellowstone into a national park, made landmarks of countless
western geological formations, and helped open numerous passages and
trails throughout the Rocky Mountains.
In doing so, Jackson assisted in selling, in its earliest forms,
the myth of the American West to an increasingly astounded populace.
Jackson soon became so adept at creating myth via photograph that
Jay Gould, of The Denver & Rio Grande, personally asked him to do the
same for his railroad. It was
then that Jackson considered returning to private enterprise.
left the United States Geological Survey in 1879.
And because Hayden had made Colorado one of its special foci,
Jackson was able to become highly familiar with the state, its people,
natural resources, and industry. As
a result, Jackson had amassed a large selection of photographic negatives
of the region. He was also
astutely aware of Colorado’s great industrial and tourist potential.
For William Henry Jackson, Colorado was the American West.
So it seemed only logical he open a studio in Denver.
With the help of two influential pioneers -- William N. Byers,
editor and publisher of The Rocky Mountain News and ex-governor William
Gilpin – Jackson started the Wm. Jackson Photo Company, located at 413
Jackson was no longer concerned with just cataloguing scenery to encourage
western migration; he was now more interested in the conquering of the
American West and man’s infusion of his technology into the natural
landscape. And now that he was
working for the railroad and mining industries he created another
perspective of the American West: a vision not necessarily disconnected
from the past, yet reshaped and refocused to inspire various commercial
audiences. He traveled the
state photographing trains, stations, mines, smelters, towns, street
scenes, and business buildings. He
published his glass-plate images as stereopticon views, cabinet cards, and
mammoth-sized albumen views.
first commission with The Denver & Rio Grande Railway began in 1881,
wherein he was contracted to photograph scenes along its thousands of
miles of tracks. The concept
grew into a major project, so Jackson invited two of his friends, Thomas
Moran, a painter who had worked with him on the Hayden surveys, and Ernest
Ingersoll, a well-known journalist, to join him.
Ingersoll was contracted to produce a series of articles on the
mines of southwestern Colorado for Harper’s Weekly; and, Moran was paid
to illustrate Ingersoll’s articles.
The team was perfect for the newly revised myth of the American
West – one centered on tourism and investment in the Colorado mining
industry. Now, instead of
taking pictures of landscapes, Jackson used technique to compose them.
new myths were no longer about challenging the unknown; they were more
about the tourist luxuriating in wondrous scenery, the partaking in
healthy and lush escapes from Eastern civilization.
They were also about the exploitation of the land: opportunity for
the investor to profit from Colorado’s rich gold and silver mines.
And thus, Jackson’s landscapes were no longer strictly about
natural environment, like they had been in the Hayden surveys –
fantastic scenery. They were
now arranged pictures made by Jackson to fit a calculated vision, a
precise and desired response from a targeted audience.
He used lens and privileged vantage points, lighting and coloring,
nature and people to arrange scenes, express and empower specific
to that special train seemingly hanging on a cliff wall in the Canon of
the Rio Las Animas, we see Jackson in powerful control of his myth-making
ability. He uses depth of
field, lighting, contrasts, and perspective to construct a controlled
scene – one that can be facilely altered to fit various emotions and
meaning. In one exposure
(Albumen Image #2442, circa 1882), Jackson finds a unique viewpoint, one
no tourist could have attained. It
was taken near Rockwood and makes his special D&RG train appear as if
it is hesitantly, precariously inching its way across a thread carved out
of solid rock. This is
intentional drama on Jackson’s part, a lure to the
investor/entrepreneur, a person accustomed to calculated ventures, someone
who often finds himself pouring everything he has into a western mine or
mining camp. In another
version of this landscape (Photochrom #59009, circa 1899), a passenger
train is seen high up from the Las Animas River bed.
It strings its way along the cliff face, appearing as if at any
moment its wheels could lose their grip and the train topple from the
tracks. Here, Jackson is
targeting the urban adventurer who craves a bit of excitement, a bit of
danger, but still needs the assurance that civilization and technology are
within grasp. In yet another
version of this landscape (Photochrom #59013, circa 1900), Jackson
balances the natural majesty of the canyon against the “cultured”
intrusion of human technology: Jackson’s special D&RG train at rest
alongside the Las Animas’ tranquil river’s bed.
This image tells the Eastern tourist he can comfortably retreat
from civilization in the newly conquered West, live healthy and
harmoniously in the beauty of the mountainous landscape, and return to the
city any time he desires.
of these scenes was intentionally and meticulously composed.
Each represents how, over the years, Jackson’s vision of the
American West was modified with the transformation of the landscape.
Each image demonstrates how Jackson altered his vision for the
constantly developing myth of the American West.
Comparing these photographic images, from 1881 to 1900, it is
possible to see the evolution of both Jackson’s photographic technique
and his own attitude toward the progress man made in the taming western
American landscape. William
Henry Jackson, himself, is now a historical figure; and his photographs
are the myths that marketed the American West.
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Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1962.
Lucius and Clegg, Charles. RIO
GRANDE: Mainline of the Rockies, Howell-North: Berkeley, 1962.
Peter. WILLIAM HENRY JACKSON and the Transformation of the American
Landscape, Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1988.
Dow. HISTORIC ALPINE TUNNEL,
Sage Books: Denver, 1963.
William Henry. TIME EXPOSURE: the Autobiography of William Henry Jackson,
G.P. Putnam’s Sons: New York, 1940.
William C. and Elizabeth B. compilers.
WILLIAM HENRY JACKSON’S
Railroad Museum: revised edition, 1992.
Robert A. RIO GRANDE … to the Pacific, Sundance, Ltd.: Denver, 1974.
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Camera, Denver: Sundance, Ltd., 1980, 3rd printing.
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Press; Denver, 1959
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