Tuesday, April 4, 2023

Set up the box

‘Decided to spend the day photographing. Saddled pony and started for the mountain taking camera and plate changing box with a dozen plates and during the forenoon made eight exposures, all on rock subjects.’ This is the famous early American photographer, William Henry Jackson, born 180 years ago today, writing in his diary on a formative mission to photograph the Union Pacific railway line in 1869.

Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York, on 4 April 1843, the first of seven children. His mother was a talented painter, and influenced William Henry who was something of an artistic prodigy. As young as 15, he started working as a retoucher in photography studios. In 1862 he joined the Union Army though saw little if any action in the American Civil War, since his unit was usually on garrison duty. He returned to Vermont in 1863, and to working in a studio. In 1866, after a broken engagement, he went West, working as a bullwhacker for a freighting outfit. He sketched landmarks and lifestyles along the Oregon Trail. On returning from the west in 1868, he opened his own photographic studio in Omaha, Nebraska, and, while travelling in the surrounding area, took many of his now-famous photographs of American Indians.

In 1869, Jackson won a commission from the Union Pacific to document the scenery along the various railroad routes for promotional purposes, and this led to him being invited to join a geologic survey to explore the Yellowstone region. He was then the official photographer of the US Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories, and became one of the most important national explorers. His photographs are credited with helping convince Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park, the first such park in the US. In 1879, he opened a studio in Denver, Colorado, and established a large inventory of national and international views. Commissions for railroads followed in the early 1890s, and in the mid-1890s he took many photographs for the World’s Transportation Commission.

Thereafter, Jackson became a partner in the Detroit Photographic Company which acquired exclusive rights to use a form of photography processing called Photochrom, allowing the company to mass market postcards and other materials - many taken by Jackson - in colour. The company went out of business after the war, and Jackson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1924, where he produced murals of the Old West for the new US Department of the Interior building, and wrote two autobiographies. He is also credited with being a technical advisor for the filming of Gone with the Wind. He died in 1942, aged 99. Further information is readily available on the internet, at Wikipedia, for example, National Park Service, and the University of Chicago Library.

The New York Public Library holds a large archive of Jackson’s papers, including many of his diaries. According to the information online: ‘The diaries vary in depth and breadth of coverage, as well as in format. Some are original holograph journals. Others are holograph or typed transcripts made by Jackson from the originals. Some which appear to be transcripts are Jackson’s narrative reconstructions based on the original diaries; others are memoirs based on brief notes. These “diaries” as a whole cover his nine months in the Vermont Regiment, 1862-1863; his first trip West in 1866-67; the opening of his studio in Omaha; his photography along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869; his “photographic campaigns” with the U.S. Geological Survey, 1870-1878; his travels abroad with the World’s Transportation Commission, 1894-1986; and his years in retirement, 1925-1942. There are no diaries covering his years as a commercial photographer in Denver, 1879-1897, and only one diary (1901) and one notebook related to the 27 years he worked for the Detroit Photographic Company (later Detroit Publishing Company).’

The Diaries of William Henry Jackson was published in 1959 by Arthur H. Clark Co. as part of The Far West and the Rockies Historical Series. This is freely available to view online at the Hathi Trust. Photographs of the original pages from the June- September 1869 diary are available to view online at the New York Public Library website, as is a typescript of the same.

24 June 1869
‘The morning was cloudy but we thought promised a fine day so we went to work & set up the box. Worked around the streets from different quarters until about noon when it commenced raining & we stopped. Kept it up at intervals all P.M. Heard that some of the demi-monde wanted some large pictures of their house. Hull & I thought we would go around & see if we couldn’t get a job out of them. Talked it up a while but they seemed indifferent. I called for a bottle of wine soon after they began to take considerable interest in having a picture taken. Had another bottle & then they were hot and heavy for some large pictures to frame & began to count up how many they should want. So we left promising that if the weather permitted we would surely be on hand & make their pictures. Just before six the rain came down in torrents, making rivers in every street. As it slacked up a little we got our instruments out & made three or four negatives of the flood, getting some very good effects. This evening was but a repetition of the last.’

25 June 1869
‘Silvered paper in the morning and attended to printing all day. Not a good day for outside work so we did not make any negatives. Got along very well with printing & even after toning our pictures looked first-rate - but the fixing bathfixed them & we were very much disappointed, some of them turning out poorly. Printed up about 4 or 5 dozen. Shall probably get quite an order from McLelland for them. After supper sat in Sumner’s store listening to tough yarns from John & his brother of fighting scrapes &c. After taking a look in the Gold Room we retired early.’

26 June 1869
‘Morning opened bright. Got things out at once to make negatives. Set the box up in the yard & made a few up town of Rollins House, Ford House &c., &c & them went down to the depot securing half a dozen different views. After dinner went over to Madame Cleveland’s to make the group of the girls with the house. Weather was just hazy enough to soften the light down for an out-door group. Made three exposures - first two not good but the last very good. Occupied the rest of the afternoon varnishing and retouching the negatives made.’

27 June 1869
‘Yesterday I received a letter from & in the evening wrote one to Mollie. This A.M. slept until 7 & then went over to John’s & commenced sivering paper at once. Kept steadily at printing until about 2 P.M. getting off about 12 sheets of paper. The pictures printed well, but in toning came up mealy much to our disgust & to add to our troubles got them overtoned - had toning all done by 4 O’clock & by 5 had 20 of Madame Cleveland’s shebang all mounted. Concluded to wait until to-morrow before we delivered them. After tea took our usual walk to the depot to see the Western train come in. Things begin to look as though we should sell quite a number of pictures & it is time we did for the last two days I have been just about strapped.’

25 September 1869
‘Decided to spend the day photographing, Saddled pony and started for the mountain taking camera and plate changing box with a dozen plates and during the forenoon made eight exposures, all on rock subjects. In passing the plate box from one to another in coming down over the rocks it slipped out of hand and in falling was damaged so that it would not work. This put an end of picture making for the time being and we all went back to camp and spent the afternoon fishing. Just before sunset, however, I repaired the plate holder and exposed the remaining plates on fish subjects.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 4 April 2013.

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