In August 1870 a small detachment of US cavalry left Camp Carlin, an army supply depot just outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. Following close behind was Ferdinand Hayden, explorer and formerly professor of geology at the University of Pennsylvania. Accompanying him were a motley group of scientists, including a mineralogist, a botanist and a topographical artist. This disparate collection of experts formed a multi-disciplinary survey tasked by the US government to survey the relatively uncharted Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountain regions. This and subsequent surveys became known collectively as the Hayden Survey. Included in the group was artist and photographer William Henry Jackson.

Jackson’s presence was last-minute but deliberate. Hayden had seen Jackson’s landscape photographs of towns and people shadowing construction of the Union and Pacific railroads. He had been impressed by Jackson’s work chronicling the life of The Pawnee and other Native American tribes. Hayden understood how powerful this new medium could be in promoting his work. He wanted Jackson on the expedition to record, for the first time in photographic form, everything he saw.

By this time Jackson was relishing the role he had created for himself – that of frontier photographer chronicling a pioneer way of life. Hayden did not have the funds to pay Jackson, but allowed the photographer to retain the negatives of any pictures he took, which meant he could sell prints to whoever he wished, backed by the survey’s stamp and Hayden’s seal of approval. Jackson would also have been well aware of the protection the cavalry escort offered in such inhospitable terrain.

Yellowstone Lake west from Mary's Bay photographed by W H Jackson
Yellowstone Lake west from Mary’s Bay photographed by W H Jackson

Jackson took more than 200 photographs on that first expedition. His results astounded most of his fellow countrymen and dramatically expanded their world. Suddenly, landmarks such as the Grand Teton mountain range and the Mount of the Holy Cross, which had until then been hearsay, became very real. Hayden was so pleased with Jackson’s work that he confirmed him as official photographer on all future expeditions, gave him his own darkroom, and provided an office in Washington. Jackson returned with Hayden the following year and enjoyed his official position until the surveys came to an end in 1878. Jackson’s photographs by themselves did not move Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872, but they certainly helped.

In today’s era of digital photography it can be difficult to appreciate the scale of Jackson’s achievement. He rarely went anywhere with less than three cameras. To process the pictures taken with those cameras, he relied on Frederick Archer’s time-sensitive wet-collodian process. He had no light meters; emulsion speeds were guesswork based on light conditions. Twenty minutes was the maximum window of opportunity before the initial application of emulsion dried on the plate. Jackson had to carry everything with him; seven horses and riders accompanied him on those surveys. Their load, including plates, inks and weighing scales never weighed less than 300 pounds. In a landscape bereft of roads, they struggled painfully slowly over steep, rocky hillsides; one false step and all his precious cargo could be ruined. One such incident cost the intrepid photographer a month’s work.

A newspaper feature on W H Jackson
A newspaper feature on W H Jackson

But these expeditions made Jackson one of the most celebrated photographers in nineteenth century America. His success can be measured by the legacy that he left. When this man from Keeseville, New York, died in 1942 at the age of 99, he left to the nation more than 25,000 glass negatives and transparencies. He was buried in Arlington Cemetery and his celebrated collection is housed in the US Library of Congress.

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