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Guide to the Early American West Photograph Collection
circa 1861-1900
  PR 266

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-3400


New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Kelly McAnnaney

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 10, 2022
Description is in English.

Historical Note

The American west was an understandable draw for early photographers. Its grand, unspoiled views inspired artists and captured the imaginations of patrons willing to purchase such images. These stunning views of the western landscape are only made more impressive when one considers the work that went into creating them. Photographers traveled long distances with heavy equipment, worked in makeshift darkrooms coating massive glass plates, exposing and developing their photographs in the field. The fact that any of these images survived is a testament to the skill of photographers willing to take up the challenge of documenting the American west.

Photographers represented in this collection include:

F. Jay Haynes (1853-1921), a studio photographer from the North Dakota Territory, was commissioned in 1876 to photograph along the route of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Working from a railroad car equipped with a darkroom and studio, Haynes captured images of natural scenery as well as the transformation of the west by the railroad. In 1884 he opened a studio and gallery in Yellowstone, selling photographs of the park's scenery to tourists and serving as the official photographer of Yellowstone National Park.

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) began his career at the age of 15 as a photographic retoucher and colorist. In 1862 Jackson enlisted in the Union Army. After his service he traveled west, opening a studio in Omaha, Nebraska with his brother Edward. The studio specialized in portrait photography, a subject that held little interest for Jackson. In 1869, he focused on his love of the landscape, traveling with A.C. Hull and photographing the Union Pacific Railroad, the new settlements along the line, and the surrounding landscape. He was soon hired on as a photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, commissioned by Professor Ferdinand Hayden, and photographed expeditions from 1870-1877.

After funding for Hayden's surveys was discontinued, Jackson relocated to Denver, Colorado, where he opened a new studio. There he worked primarily as a landscape photographer, selling images from his travels and creating new work. In 1897, Jackson became a partner in the Detroit Photographic Company, which produced postcards and other printed material. He continued to work, photographing, painting murals and writing two autobiographies, until his death in 1942.

Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902) became the first member of the armed services to officially photograph the Civil War. The majority of his work was done for the Military Railroad, documenting transportation and engineering projects as well as battle sites. Russell left the army in 1865 and found work with the Union Pacific Railroad Company, documenting the construction of a transcontinental railroad. He left the Union Pacific Railroad in 1870 and returned to New York. There he opened a studio and never traveled west again.

Isaiah West Taber (1830-1912), after working for a photographic studio from 1864-1871, opened his own gallery in San Francisco. There he worked as both a photographer and publisher, printing and distributing his own work and the work of others. In the 1870s, Taber acquired and printed negatives from Carleton Watkins after Watkins went bankrupt. These images were printed in Taber's name though many still bear Watkins numbers and titles. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the majority of Taber's stock and ended his career.

Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916) traveled to California in 1851, during the gold rush, with his friend C. P. Huntington. After studying photography with Robert Vance, Watkins opened his own practice, photographing up and down the Pacific Coast, as well as taking spectacular images of Yosemite. Unfortunately his business skills were less spectacular and he declared bankruptcy in 1875, losing his studio and negatives to Isaiah Taber.

Watkins continued to photograph, attempting to create a new series of views and rebuild his inventory. He revisited locations he photographed in the 1860s, calling the images "Watkins New Series." By the mid-1890s Watkins' eyesight was failing. In 1906 he lost his new work when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed his studio. Watkins was admitted to the Napa State Hospital in 1910, where he died six years later.