William Henry Jackson


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Photographer and painter. Known chiefly for photographs of the American West and its native inhabitants, he numbered among the first to record many of its scenic wonders. The dramatic power of his thousands of western photographs crystallized ideas about wilderness and its conquest in the American mind. He hauled into remote areas a huge camera that accommodated 20″ × 24″ glass plates, the largest ever used in field photography. Jackson sketched and painted early in his career, but also produced panoramic western scenes in the 1930s. He was born in Keeseville, near Lake Champlain in northern New York State. He learned photography as a teenager, while working in studios in Troy, New York, and in Vermont. Following military service in the Civil War, he returned in 1863 to work again in Vermont. Three years later he headed west. After traveling in the region for some months, he opened a studio in Omaha, in partnership with his brother Edward. For the next several years he photographed the region's landscape, its Indian inhabitants, and the progress of the Union Pacific railroad. In 1870 he accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden's U.S. government-sponsored expedition along the Oregon Trail. Their association continued through the 1878 season, as they explored varied western regions, including the Wyoming territory, the Rocky and Teton Mountains, and the Southwest. Painters who also sometimes traveled with the group enriched Jackson's aesthetic sensibility. During the first summer Sanford Gifford was his companion, while Thomas Moran accompanied later travels. Working alongside Moran in 1871, Jackson produced a series of revelatory photographs that, together with Moran's paintings, proved instrumental to Congress's designation of Yellowstone as a national park in 1872. Jackson settled in Denver in 1879 but traveled widely throughout the United States and into Canada and Latin America. Often his journeys were sponsored by railroads, which found his views useful in stimulating tourism. In 1893 he showed his work at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and served there as an official photographer. The following year, on commission from Harper's Weekly magazine, he departed with the World's Transportation Commission on a global tour, which resulted in many effective studies of India and other far-flung locales. In 1898 he became a partner and chief photographer for the Detroit Photographic Company (later, the Detroit Publishing Company). Among other accomplishments there, he spearheaded important developments in the color postcard industry, but administrative duties increasingly displaced photography. Following the firm's dissolution in 1924, he worked independently as a photographer, painter, and lecturer, almost until the end of his ninety-nine years. He died in New York. Jackson issued a number of portfolios and bound volumes of his views (some sponsored by the federal government), as well as Time Exposure: An Autobiography (1940). The Diaries of William Henry Jackson, Frontier Photographer (1959), edited by LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, covers the years 1866 through 1874.

Subjects: Art.

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