The power of a photograph to change the course of history was more apparent 150 years ago, when the explorer William Henry Jackson took a picture of land near Yellowstone River that led to the declaration of the region as the first U.S. National Park.
The 150-foot hot-spring geysers had been just rumors until Jackson brought back photographs in 1872 of the picturesque, pristine and dramatic landscape. The evidence played a large role in the creation of Yellowstone National Park 10 years later.
Jackson’s work was one of a kind. It was the context of how news travelled in the late 1800s.
Today, with deepening global access to visual storytelling on social media and the broad access to advanced visual technology, the number of images produced and shared on the Internet last year increased to 2 trillion, according to Anna Dickson, content and community photo lead at Google. In a story in Vantage magazine, Dickson presents the issue as a search for technology that can find the best of what interests people today.
“The future of photography isn’t just about the tools we use to create it; it’s also about access to those photos and then using them to communicate with the world. We need to figure out how we surface the images people want to see and find the stories that people want to tell.”
It wasn’t such a technical challenge in the old days. What people wanted to know and see required physical strength and a courageous explorer or survey party willing to scale mountains, descend canyons and run the waterways of the Wild West. Much of 19th century manifest destiny was influenced by the subject matter early photographers chose during their arduous expeditions.
William Henry Jackson produced a vast body of photographs over his lifetime, 1843-1942. Today’s technology can produce and share many times his entire achievement in just a few web hours. Side by side, Jackson’s thousand images, made by hand during his career, against the trillions posted instantly online last year, challenge the viewer to seek the value in his experiential reality against the increasingly artificial reality available online.
Fortunately, David Butler, a local collector and connoisseur of Jackson’s photographs, and FAD Furniture, Art & Design, a new gallery in Mancos, have teamed up to offer an exhibit of the real deal. The gallery is showing a selection of Jackson’s original photographs from Butler’s private collection.
Butler’s quest started in the early 1970s, when Butler was on a field excursion to the ghost town of Webster, Colo. with his Denver high-school teacher, Robert Brown, author of Ghost Towns of the Colorado Rockies. The students used it as a reference book. Inside, a photo of the town was credited to Jackson. Butler said he never forgot how it felt to be in the same place where a famed photographer had stood a century before.
Twenty-five years later, Butler found one of Jackson’s photographs in an antique store. He recognized the image, remembering the quality and the feeling he had in high school. That was the moment he started to collect Jackson’s photos, one by one.
He still finds them. But when eBay became a viable marketplace he watched for listings. “A Jackson photochrom or an albumen print would crop up from time to time, but one day a listing went up with 40-50 pieces. I called the eBay store owner, and asked if I could buy them all.”
The owner of the prints was very knowledgeable about Jackson’s work, informing Butler of Jackson’s unusual life story and his large body of work as one of America’s finest 19th-century photographers. In the 1990s Butler bid on a vast compilation of Jackson’s work, archived for 60 years, nearly forgotten, and added them to his growing collection.
“It’s one thing to have them in your own personal life, lay your eyes on the contextual beauty they represent, but it’s the kind of life story and success that should be shared with the public,” he explained. It’s why he is glad to put the work on display in the gallery for two months.
When the U.S. Department of the Interior organized the Hayden Survey Party in 1867, it charged the team with mapping unknown regions of the American West.
Three years later, Jackson joined the party as chief photographer, which gave him the opportunity to travel throughout the West, including to Mancos, where he became the first to document the ruins near Mesa Verde with thousands of photographs.
Gallery owner Collete Webster told the Free Press that Butler’s estimable collection of Jackson works is expected to attract a lot of attention from tourists visiting Mesa Verde because some of the original prints in the exhibit are among the first images ever made there. Butler is including 10 imperial-size Mesa Verde cabinet cards, 7.25 by 9.25 inches, mounted on heavy-weight card stock suitable for prop-up display in a parlor cabinet. They are just one of the many camera and plate sizes Jackson used.
Under grueling conditions, he and his team of five to seven men packed photographic equipment on the backs of mules, including three camera-types. The fragile, heavy glass photo plates were coated, exposed, and developed on site, before the photochrom color emulsion dried. Without light metering equipment or sure emulsion speeds, exposure times required inspired guesswork. Butler has selected 13 framed original photochrom of national-park landmarks for the exhibit at FAD.
The exhibit will also include Butler’s collection of mini-cards acquired from eBay six years after his initial contact with the owner. They are about 2 by 3 inches. “No one had seen this size and we didn’t have a clue how they were intended to be used. It was a mystery.”
Butler enlisted the help of a gallery in Aspen to investigate the provenance and authenticity. “They are originals, but still the tiny size is puzzling. They were probably destined to be pasted in a book, as was customary in those days.”
All the work in the Jackson exhibit induces an intimacy with the viewer, Butler observes, a respectful observation of something very real and rare today. He says the new gallery displays work in a more professional approach than many venues these days because Webster understands the scale of the work and its quality. They are not reproductions or new photos, he says, with a ragged border filter on the edges.
“These are the real thing. Sometimes people come up at a exhibition reception and ask me when I took the photo, or where. They really didn’t look at the image, or they didn’t know what they were looking at if they did.”
He hopes to share Jackson’s story, to help people understand the value of such an exceptional life and how people depended on his work for news of the West at a time when travel was slow and everything was very far away.
Webster is delighted to stage the exhibit. “It’s a fascinating look at the early photochrom process, Jackson’s breathtaking early images of Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings, and rugged western landscapes.”