Photographers of the Old West

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Photographers of the Old West

In a society that is focused on visual stimuli, it isn't uncommon to see a person taking a picture with a camera or making a "movie" with their camcorder. But, in the 1840s and 1850s, life just wasn't like that. If someone said they could make a picture of a mining town or of the route to the West without a pencil or paint people would have laughed at them. Laughing would have been appropriate because photography didn't come into being until 1839. James Horan reveals in his book, Mathew Brady: Historian with a Camera, that it wasn't even called photography then, it was called the "new art" (5). There were very few people who knew what it was to take a picture, or make a picture with light. The only pictures that were around at that time were those that were drawn, painted, or printed from lithographs or etchings. Newspapers didn't have real live pictures that showed the actual things that were written about. The population of America as it was in 1800 didn't know what the "West" looked like. According to Eugene Ostroff, sketches and paintings were the only illustrations of the West before photography (9). Ostroff tells us that these weren't usually accepted if the painter had taken artistic license (9). All Americans knew were the stories of the people who returned because it was too difficult to live there or the letters from friends and family telling the horrors they saw. So, with the invention of photography, especially the ability to "fix" the image onto the paper or metal plate had a major effect on the expansion to the West because the pictures that were taken showed how the West really was beautiful. Unfortunately, it was a while before the public was able to see the pictures that were taken by the photographers of the West because 1839 was only the very beginning of photography as a profession and a hobby.

The first type of using light to make a picture was the daguerreotype. Both Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and Nicephore Niepce, who passed away before the public was introduced to the daguerreotype, founded this type of picture taking. However, before this Louis Daguerre made a "theater without actors." Beaumont Newhall explains that this was an illusion made by extraordinary lighting effects that made the 45 ½ foot by 71 ½ foot pictures appear to change as one looked at them (2).

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"Photographers of the Old West." 27 May 2018
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This was not "true" photography because the picture was a painting and it was just lights on the picture and not what made the picture. However, even though this wasn't "true" photography, the paintings needed to be so exact that Daguerre used a camerae obscurae, the former name for a camera. Many artists had used these "cameras" in the past. Laurie Schneider Adams explains that the camerae obscurae was a box, with a lens, a mirror inside at a 45-degree angle, and a piece of glass so the image reflected off the mirror could be copied (409). By using this and then coating a copper plate with highly polished silver, which was made light sensitive with iodine, Daguerre was able to make light create a picture.

Daguerre also discovered that by exposing the newly made print to mercury vapor caused the "colors" to change. The vapor would cause the exposed silver to produce a whitish amalgam and did nothing to the unexposed part of the silver; this made the picture become visible. Newhall states that Daguerre had come up with a way to develop his pictures (46). According to Beaumont Newhall, Sir John Frederick William Herschel came up with a way of "fixing" the picture, or making it safe for the picture to be exposed to light. He used hyposulphite of soda, which dissolved all the light sensitive silver of the picture, so it was then safe to be set out in the light without the possibility of turning black (58). Newhall notes that even photographers today use this method of "fixing" their images; only the chemicals are now known to be sodium thiosulfate (58). This "fixing" is what made photography really progress. Before this, only certain people were able to see the pictures that were made. This process gave the picture a staying power that it never had before. By "fixing" images, photographers in America were able to go West, shoot their subjects, and not have to bring the images back right away so they could be seen. For years, Daguerre and Niepce worked together to come up with the perfect way to cause light to make a picture and Daguerre worked for another six years by himself after Niepce's death, perfecting the technique. Newhall tells that it wasn't until Monday, August 19, 1839, that Daguerre and Niepce's process finally became known to the people of France (90). James Horan noted that the people of American didn't hear of it until Samuel F. B. Morse returned to New York from Paris on September 20, 1839 (5). The news spread like wildfire and people everywhere began making their own cameras and trying to make their own, "new art." Beaumont Newhall tells of how Sir John Frederick William Herschel discovered the way to make projection prints, or enlarge negatives as we call it today (71). He wrote Talbot and told him that by placing an etching on a smoked glass behind an aplanatic lens (smoked side toward the focus) a copy of the etching reduced on any required scale and by exposing the reduced copy to a solar beam radiating from the focus of the lens, it could be enlarged. Another advancement in printing is explained by Newhall in The Latent Image, it was called reflex printing. This was discovered by Albert Breyer that by putting the coated side of Talbot's photogenic paper in contact with the sheet being reproduced and exposing it through the back it creates an almost exact reproduction that is either a negative of a positive or a positive of a negative (80).

It wasn't until 1841 that the daguerreotype had any type of competition at all. Newhall tells of how Talbot accidentally came across the process of the calotype while testing the sensitivity of different papers (112). He had taken a picture with paper coated in "silver iodide" (dipped first in silver nitrate and then potassium iodide) and left it to sit out and it basically developed itself. This was the first ever polaroid. This became very popular with the public because it took much less time than the daguerreotype. It became popular with photographers because the materials were easier and cheaper to get and to store and took much less time to expose and develop. However, Thomas Schlereth states that this process, even though popular for a while, was rarely used and what use it did get was from Americans (223). Newhall also says that the calotype had its most success in recording architecture and landscape (124). Louis Desire Blanquart-Evrard used a developing-out paper, which sped up the process time dramatically, and he was actually able to produce about one hundred prints in an hour, an obscene amount in those days. Unfortunately paper poorly supported the negative and the texture of the paper reprinted on the positive print.

Newhall found that in 1847 Claude Abel Niepce de Saint-Victor (nephew to Nicephore Niepce) discovered that by coating a glass plate with the white of an egg and potassium iodide and putting it in silver nitrate after the first coat was dry, made the glass light sensitive because of the coating of now silver iodide (125). These plates were the beginning of a whole new dimension of photography. It became known as the collodion process. Frederick Scott Archer, Newhall explains, discovered this new process, in 1851 (126). Newhall told how he found that by dissolving cotton in nitric acid, alcohol, and ether formed a liquid about the thickness of corn syrup and when dry formed a skin like covering (first discovered in 1847 to protect wounds). He decided to add potassium iodide to his collodion and place the plate in silver nitrate before it all dried. He would then expose the plate before it was dry, develop it in either gallic or pyrogallic acid, fix it in hypo, wash it, and dry it. He was then able to conserve the glass by stripping the image from the glass and rolling it onto a glass rod (127). This process, excited photographers everywhere because they now no longer had to wasted their time on buffing their silver plates and worry about the noxious fumes from the many dangerous chemicals used to process the old metal plates. Not only was it safer for the photographer it was much, much easier than the old processes. According to Newhall, the glass negatives could be made into positives by just placing a black background behind the glass causing the grayish-white tone of the developed collodion to show the highlights and the shadows, nearly transparent, became the black of the background (58). The only major downside to the collodion process was that there was no way to duplicate the picture.

Newhall explains in his book, The History of Photography, that the collodion process brought about another new way of taking pictures. Some people called it a melainotype, others called it a ferrotype, but the most common name was a tintype. Newhall explained that instead of the collodion being put on glass it was put on thin sheets of metal japanned black of chocolate color (58). Because the tintype wasn't fragile they were able to be sent through the mail, kept in a pocket, and put into albums. The tintype was the beginning of the photo album, which is still popular for keeping pictures of families and friends. Newhall states that the tintype was also very popular because they were cheap and using a multi-lens camera several images could be shot and then cut into several different pictures with tin snips (60).

Even with the new collodion and tintype processes, the daguerreotype was still the most popular if a person wanted a really nice picture. But, Newhall states, in 1854, the daguerreotype received its final blow with Adolphe-Eugene Disderi's discovery of the carte-de-visite (60). Desderi made these popular prints by having a wet-plate negative like that of the collodion, a special camera with several lenses, and a plate holder that moved. Newhall explains that with these new additions a photographer was able to take more than one pose per negative (61). These could later be cut into about eight different pictures and pasted onto a mount. Although the pictures were very small, only 4 by 2 ½ inches, everyone wanted them. Unfortunately the poses for these new pictures became very monotonous and rarely differed. This meant that if people wanted a picture without the standardized posing they would have the photographer use the collodion process. This meant the daguerreotype was fairly obsolete in a matter of fifteen years. Newhall states that with the progress of photography it started gaining the aspects of an art form as well as a profession, especially with the use of combination printing, which involves using more than one negative to create a print (68). Newhall gives the example of a piece made by Oscar B. Rejlander, a major "picture" of the new art form, "The Two Paths of Life," used thirty separate negatives (73).

However, even these new art forms could not compete with the emotional connection that people felt when looking at a picture taken with a stereoscopic camera. These cameras, instead of having just one lens have two lenses, which, according to Beaumont Newhall, reproduce binocular vision (92). Using this new technique made the pictures seem to have a three dimensional quality that only our eyes or a double lens camera can give. Beaumont Newhall explains that, this type of photography also helped to do away with the daguerreotype as a standard because the metallic glare made the images harder to see (92). Since the daguerreotype wasn't suited to the needs of the stereoscopic picture and the collotype could stand the magnification needed, Beaumont Newhall observed that glass transparencies and paper prints became the norm (92). Eugene Ostroff notes that the general public enjoyed the stereograph pictures better than any other kind because they got a real feel for what the picture was taken of (22). Peter Pollack tells of how Oliver Wendell Holmes, who admired good travel photographs, wrote articles that urged his readers to travel with him using his stereoscopic pictures (135). Pollack also tells how photographers penetrated the frontier to supply stereoscopic photographs to the photography storehouses in the East (135). According to Eugene Ostroff, the stereograph provided a new market for photographers (22). Ostroff notes that with this new market they were able to sell many stereographic pictures and make a large enough profit that some were eventually able to pay their own way on expeditions (22). The stereoscopic pictures brought about not only more freedom for photographers by providing them with an income but it also made it possible for the Americans in the East to see the true beauty of the West. Instead of seeing the daguerreotypes or collodion prints that were as two-dimensional as then could get but the quality of the prints didn't measure up to what a photographer could get from the glass transparencies.

The stereograph made the public "see" the West for the first time, but photography made the West develop. Eugene Ostroff states that the photographs William Henry Jackson took while on a government expedition strongly influenced the passage of legislation that established Yellowstone as the first national park (22). Ostroff also explains that people before photography existed didn't believe what they saw in the sketches of the West because they thought them to be products of romanticizing artists (9). Photography became the only "honest" and non-tampered with form of illustrating what was actually seen. Fortunately for photographers, the general public didn't realize how different chemicals could change images. Ostroff explains that using the collodion process would cause the sky to "blow-out" (become almost pure white with no detail) because the coatings on the plates were only sensitive to blue and ultra-violet lights (19). Ostroff notes that these coatings could also cause mountains to disappear if it was hazy and clouds would never show (19). Ostroff also explains how the long exposures could make a raging river look like a calmly flowing stream and make trees into big masses on windy days, all because it wasn't yet discovered how to take pictures of moving objects (20). If the general public knew these things, photography would probably not have been as popular and the West would have most likely stayed unpopulated because the people still wouldn't have believed what they saw.

Because the government wanted to know what they had in the West they sent out expeditions to explore the vast areas of unpopulated territories. Photographers were sent so everything that was explored could be "seen" and not just written down. These expedition photographers struggled with many different aspects of these expeditions. The traveling and transportation of equipment was the first and main concern. Ostroff notes that if there happened to be "good" roads the photographers could use wagons for transportation, if the roads were only "passable" they had to use pack animals, but more often than not, the photographer and his assistants had the unpleasant duty of backpacking all of the equipment because there were no roads at all (17). According to Ostroff, backpacking the equipment was no easy task because it wasn't only heavy (at least 100 pounds) but with all the glass plates and the cameras it was also very fragile (17). If travel had been the only problem, the photographers would have been doing well. Climate was another issue. Ostroff explains that if a photographer was going to a dry climate they had to worry about joints pulling apart in cameras and becoming useless, coatings drying to fast, and protecting images from dust and insects (19).

Photography made known to America and the world just what the West was like. Unfortunately, according to Ostroff, photographers had to avoid the Indians because they were afraid of getting their pictures taken (20). Ostroff explains that the Sioux Indians believed that it was bad medicine to get their picture taken, and because of that belief they "scalped, killed, and horribly mutilated," Ridgway Glover, a photographer who unwisely left the security of one of the forts to take pictures of the Indians (20). Alan Trachtenberg states that photography played a distinct role in the conquest, exploration, and settlement of the West (306).

Many photographers went to the West because it was new, it was unseen, and there was no other competition to be had. Many of the "towns" had no photographers let alone studios so by going west a photographer was guaranteed a job. One such photographer was Thomas M. McKee. He left Tennessee in 1887 for Sitka, Alaska, but was convinced by a friend to go to Montrose, a town in Colorado because there was no studio there and it would be easy for him to do well there. Ralph Andrews tells us that he roamed the valleys and studied the miners, ranchers and even the Ute Indians (11). Not only was McKee an important photographer of the time for his pictures but also he was valuable for his collection of Ute Indian relics. Andrews explains that his basket-ware collection, containing only sixteen pieces, was valued at several thousand dollars in 1965 (12). McKee is a shining example of the effect that photographers had. McKee's vast knowledge, Andrews states, came from his personal contact (12). McKee is a good example of a photographer who played a distinct role in the exploration of the West because without his knowledge of the Ute Indians, we might not know anything of them today. Thomas McKee was also important for being one of the first to get pictures of the Mesa Verde ruins.

One photographer in particular had a major impact on the conquest of the West. This photographer was Camillus S. Fly who, "carried a camera in Tombstone and left the six-guns for Wyatt Earp, Luke Short and the cattle rustlers." (Andrews 142) Andrews helps us understand why Camillus Fly helped settle the West by stating that he gave up his camera and took up halters and handcuffs to become the sheriff of Cochise County (142). Fly is known for his pictures of outlaws, most of them being the "bad boys" of the day. Fly's other major "models" were the Apache Indians, whom he made friends with while photographing Cochise County.

William Henry Jackson was one of the most influential photographers of his time. According to Eugene Ostroff his greatest achievement was influencing the passage of legislation that established Yellowstone as the first national park (22). Because of the photographs taken by Jackson, Ostroff explains that the senators were able to see photographs of the valley and other curiosities that the area contained (22). Ostroff states that these pictures influenced the senators so much that President Grant signed the bill on March 1, 1872 (22). John K. Hillers also influenced the government. According to Don Fowler, John Hillers made photographs and models of several sites in the Mesa Verde then proposed that a series of "living exhibits" be made with real live Indians (79). This proposal was not approved with the live Indians but they did make papier-mâché and wax mannequins of the Indians (79). Not only did photographers of the time shoot landscapes, Indians, outlaws, and miners for the purpose of showing the East what the people of the West were really like but they would also take commissions to shoot people's homes for promotional purposes. In a review of Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West, Peter Palmquist is known for his taking pictures of mines to attract foreign investors (307).

From the 1830s onward, photography has been advancing at an unbelievably rapid rate. From the daguerreotype in 1839 to digital photography today, photographers have been entranced by the magic of photography. If it weren't for the brave photographers who believed their mission was to photograph the West during its prime, our world would be more ignorant and less beautiful. Because of photographers trudging through mountains passes carrying hundreds of pound of equipment on their backs and enquiring minds discovering new ways to make photographs "stay" we are able to see what it was like to live in the West, travel through the mountains, and the harsh working conditions miners and ranchers dealt with. Photographers persuaded government officials to make national parks, they people that the West was truly beautiful, and they were able to show the art that God created in the West.

Works Cited

Adams, Laurie Schneider. A History of Western Art. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2001.

Andrews, Ralph Warren. Photographers of the Frontier West. Seattle: Superior Pub. Co., 1965.

Fowler, Don D. The Western Photographs of John K. Hillers. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Horan, James A. Mathew Brady: Historian with a Camera. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc, 1955.

Newhall, Beaumont. Latent Image: The Discovery of Photography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967.

Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1949.

Ostroff, Eugene. Western Views and Eastern Visions. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service with the cooperation of the United States Geological Survey, 1981.

Palmquist, Peter E. Rev. of Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Pr. For Amon Carter Museum, 1983.

Pollack, Peter. The Picture History of Photography, From the Earliest Beginnings to the Present DayTrachtenberg, Alan. "The American West Comes Out of the Closet-Partially." American Quarterly 37.2 (1985): 305-310.

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