William Henry Jackson

William Henry Jackson



William Henry Jackson is one of the most respected landscape photographers of the American West. His career in photography was one of the longest and most successful. He won his reputation with his resourcefulness and skill, his luck, his capacity for hard work, his longevity, and his talents as a photographer and a businessman. Jackson could and did create images of the Western landscape that were large in size and grandiose in scale, confirming the grandest ideals of those exponents of America’s Manifest Destiny.

His mountain ranges were longer and higher, his vistas stretched farther, his terrains were wilder, more rugged, and more filled with a sense of wonder than conventional topographic views, highlighting a wilderness that was waiting to be tamed and made available to the American citizen (The American West, 209). Jackson was born just four years after the announcement of photography in Keesville, New York on April 4. This timely birth allowed him to witness the early, explosive years of the development of photography. Jackson’s father, George Hallock Jackson was a prominent business owner in Keesville and was the first Jackson to own a camera.

To Jackson’s father, photography was only a passing phase and soon the camera was left for the young William Jackson as a toy. Harriet M. Allen, Jackson’s mother, was a painter by hobby and taught Jackson an appreciation for art as well as technical lessons in composition and style. In 1844, the family moved to Georgia and nine years later the family moved to Troy, New York, where they remained for quite some time. As a young boy Jackson showed early interest and talent in drawing and it won him his first job designing some display cards for the local drug store. His success led to many more commissions and in 1858, photographer C.C. Schoonmaker hired Jackson as a retouching artist. After a referral, Jackson moved to Rutland, Vermont. This job with photographer Frank Mowry was the perfect experience for Jackson. He retouched photographs, but tinted some to full color as well as learned the photographic process.

However, his career was quickly halted in 1862 when Jackson voluntarily enlisted to fight in the Civil War. He joined the Twelfth Vermont Infantry, Company K. By 1863 his camp realized Jackson was not the combative type, and he was assigned a new position to sketch camp life and map the countryside. When his enlistment expired, just before the end of the war, Jackson returned to tinting photographs and oil painting some of the wars’ heroes. Because of Jackson’s work previous to the war, his sketches of camp life and his current artistic impressions, Jackson’s reputation grew quickly. He became very social and began to court Caroline Eastman, whom he called the belle of the town (Time Exposure, 71). However, as fate would have it, Jackson was soon pursued by the leading photographer of Burlington, Vermont who owned the Vermont Gallery of Art, and offered Jackson $25 a week to come work for him. Jackson could not refuse and moved, leaving behind his new fiancé. With the stress of distance, Caroline and William had an argument one afternoon. She had spirit, I was bull-headed, and the quarrel grew (Time Exposure, 81-83). A week passed and the two had not reconciled, so the relationship was over. In the meaty phrase current today, I couldn’t take it. All my friends knew of my engagement, and I lacked the moral fiber to tell them it was broken. There was only one course visible to me: I must leave Vermont forever (Time Exposure, 81-83).

Jackson arrived in New York City in 1866. He and a friend from the Civil War soon headed West by train. His travels took him to many cities, but it was difficult to find steady employment. By 1867, Jackson arrived in Omaha, Nebraska and became an assistant in Hamilton’s Gallery. Later he bought Hamilton’s Gallery as well as another establishment. Jackson invited his brother in this business venture, joined the two studios to become “Jackson Brothers, Photographers.” The studio became the leading portrait studio in town. That same year, Jackson began some of his first field work, taking some of the first-ever photographs of the Pawnee, Otoe, Omaha, Winnebagoe, Ponca and Osage Indian tribes. Over 3,000 glass-plate negatives were later given to the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute. On May 10, 1869, the same day as the rails joined at Promontory Point, Utah, Jackson married Mollie Greer in Omaha.

On May 16, just as soon as his honeymoon was over with Mollie, Jackson left for Cheyenne on what Jackson considered his first “photographic campaign.” Portrait photography never had a chance for me, so I sought my subjects from the housetops, and finally the hilltops and about the surrounding country….The opening of the Pacific Railroad in 1869 rendering easy access a region rich in scenic effects and interest, I determined to photograph it. He took 8×10 negatives and stereoviews. He soon set up a satellite business in Wyoming. Jackson’s reputation was growing rapidly and was commissioned in late 1869 by E. & H. T. Anthony and Company to furnish them with 10,000 stereoviews of the American West. Jackson also met with A.J. Russell and they made plans to soon travel together. In 1870, Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, head of the United States Geological Survey, asked Jackson to join his survey, for which he remained “Official Photographer” until 1878. Only working summers, after 8 years, the region that the survey covered was absolutely incredible. Such places as the Old Oregon Trail, Yellowstone, North Platte, Devil’s Gate, Great Gorge, Mammoth Hot Springs, Baronett’s Bridge, Tower Falls, the Teton Basin, the Fire-Hole Basin, the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Mesa Verde and many, many more were re-discovered or discovered and documented by the groups of artists and scientists. From just the first summer Jackson made over 370 negatives. This was quite an accomplishment considering the vulnerability of the glass-plate; Jackson’s chosen size of 20×24 inches and the uncertainty of the wet-plate process in general. Because of the numerous, beautiful images Jackson produced that first year, Congress established that Yellowstone should be forever set aside as a national park, and on March 1, 1872, President Grant signed the bill into law. During these travels Jackson worked and befriended Thomas Moran. Jackson learned composition techniques from the now-famous and respected painter. However, the elation of seeing and photographing the young American West was not easy for Jackson’s young wife, Mollie because he was far from home more often. Eventually, Jackson finally sold the store in Omaha in and moved Mollie to Washington, DC where she was closer to the survey’s headquarters. Later that year Mollie and child died during childbirth. Despite this personal devastation, Jackson felt compelled to continue his work.

On August 18, 1873 Jackson and the survey set course for Mount of the Holy Cross. This particular area was surrounded with mystery. There were stories of a holy cross, hidden in the top of an extremely rugged mountain, but not many had seen it and certainly no one had ever photographed it. The crew felt a great desire and need to find it and photograph the Holy Cross. On this day, as usual I pushed ahead, and thus it was that I became the first member of the Survey to sight the cross. Near the top of the ridge I emerged above the timberline and the clouds, and suddenly, as I clambered over a vast mass of jagged rocks, I discovered the great shining cross before me, tilted against the mountainside (Time Exposure, 217). Jackson was the first to photograph the Mountain of the Holy Cross. Also in 1873, Jackson married Emilie Painter, whom he had known since 1868.

For the next several years Jackson continued his photographic journeys, discovering and documenting numerous ruins of cliff dwellings and countryside. In 1876 he Hayden assigned Jackson to organize the Surveys’ exhibition at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In 1878 the survey was officially ended due to lack of government funding, so in early 1879 Jackson moved to Denver where he opened a studio named, “The Jackson Photographic Company.” Early in 1880, Jackson sent for his family and for the next 15 years he ran a large very successful commercial studio. He had a printer, a mounter, a receptionist and two assistants. Familiar with Jackson’s fieldwork, the railroads hired Jackson in 1881 to take photographs for promotional purposes. For over 15 years, Jackson made some 30,000 negatives of railroads such as the Colorado Midland, Denver South Park, Pacific and Colorado Central. In 1883, he incorporated himself as W.H. Jackson Photograph and Publishing Company, Inc. Following, he published several albums of documentary images of Mexico and Colorado. Until 1902 he continued independent surveys and publishing. He also traveled with the World’s Transportation Commission, which took him to the Near and Far East, Australia, China, Siberia and Russia from 1894-1896. Throughout his trip around the world, Jackson was hailed as “Great American Ambassador.” At the close of the tour, Jackson returned to Colorado only to find his studio having financial difficulties.

Late in 1897 Jackson was given an offer from the Detroit Publishing Company, which produced mass-market postcards and stereoviews. Leaving his wife in Denver to continue working in the studio, Jackson became a major stockholder and the chief cameraman for the company. I had two things to contribute to the Detroit Publishing Company; 1) the most complete set of Western negatives yet assembled by one man and 2) the experience and reputation (Time Exposure, 323). In 1903, Jackson became the supervisor of 40 artisans and traveling sales associates, and halted the bulk of his professional photography. He remained with the company until 1924, and Jackson was forced to leave due to the company’s major financial problems. Emilie had died in 1917, so Jackson relocated in Washington, D.C. where he begins painting again and gathering his diaries for a possible autobiography. In 1929, Jackson went to New York, and was offered and accepted the position of Research Secretary for the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. The Roosevelt Administration hired Jackson to paint murals depicting several of the surveys completed in the 1870s and late 1880s. Each of the four oil paintings he produced was 30×60 feet. Jackson portrayed the Hayden Survey, the King Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, the Wheeler Survey of 1873 and the Powell Survey of the Colorado River. That same year he sold his collection of 40,000 negatives to the Edison Institute in Dearborn, Michigan. The Denver Public Library purchased 2,000 photographs from Jackson’s personal collection as well as original proof prints of all Rocky Mountain subjects. Just a year later he was commissioned by the National Park Service to produce paintings for distribution to the various parks. During the 1930s and early 1940s, Jackson was made an honorary member of the Royal Photography Society, complete 50 watercolors recording the history of the Oregon Trail, received an honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of Wyoming and participated at a technical advisor in the filming of the motion picture, Gone with the Wind. In 1940, Jackson’s autobiography, Time Exposure, was released. On June 30, 1942 Jackson died a New York City hospital from complications and injuries received from a fall. He left one son, two daughters, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren a legacy not many people have achieved in one lifetime in the history of the world. The Herald Tribune wrote of Jackson’s death, Jackson, who for 79 of his 99 years viewed the world through three eyes, tow of his own, the other searching, ever-improving eye of the camera, is dead.

The Union Pacific Railroad photographs were donated to the Colorado Historical Society. They also received the 53,879 negatives Jackson made of the West from 1880 through 1920 after long negotiations with the Edison Institute in Dearborn. All of negatives made during this same time period, approximately 30,000, of Eastern American and of foreign countries were given to the Library of Congress. Original Hayden Survey negatives are with the National Archives in Washington, but the Denver Federal Center has duplicates.

Jackson wrote and published more than 50 books, articles, albums and manuscripts, including the complete diaries of his life and adventures and an autobiography. Thousands of articles and books have been written about Jackson, and he has been the subject or included in numerous exhibitions. He was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame in 2002.


Share history with the world at IPHF.

Get involved