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William Henry Jackson: The Foremost Phtotographer of American West

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Creating images of the Western landscape that were large in size and grandiose in scale, and highlighting a wilderness that was waiting to be tamed and made available to the American citizen, the American photographer and artist, William Henry Jackson, is celebrated as one of the most respected landscape photographers of the American West, whose photographs helped popularize the region.

The great-great nephew of Samuel Wilson, Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York, on April 4, 1843. A self-taught artist, he began working as a retoucher in a photographer’s studio at the age of 15. He was successful in this pursuit and later moved to a more prosperous studio in Rutland, Vermont. He honed his artist’s skills with the retouching work but also learned a great deal about the young art of photography.

In1862, with the onset of the Civil War, Jackson enlisted in the Union Army. After serving in the American Civil War, he returned to Vermont before heading west in 1866. He opened a photography studio in Omaha, Nebraska, the following year and began photographing local native Americans and scenes from the route of the new Union Pacific transcontinental rail line.

From 1870 to 1878, Jackson was the official photographer for the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. His photographs of natural wonders of northwestern Wyoming, taken during the Hayden survey expedition of 1871, were exhibited in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Members of U.S. Congress were so impressed by Jackson’s photos that his work was one of the major factors in the congressional vote that established Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

Jackson photographed in the Teton Range south of Yellowstone (in an area now part of Grand Teton National Park) in 1872, and in 1874 he took photographs of cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado (now in Mesa Verde National Park). Following his work with the survey, he opened a new studio in Denver, Colorado, in 1879.

In 1893, Jackson exhibited his work at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where he was also the fair’s official cameraman. Shortly thereafter he became the cameraman and part-owner of a company in Detroit, Michigan, that bought the rights to the new Photochrom process for printing photographs in color. He worked there until the company’s collapse in 1924.

Jackson had dabbled in painting throughout his career, and from the mid-1920s until his death he pursued it in earnest. He produced dozens of oils and watercolors during that period, mainly on themes associated with the American West. He continued to take on occasional government commissions, including painting murals for the Works Progress Administration in 1936.

William Henry Jackson celebrated his 99th birthday in 1942 and died two months later on June 30, 1942. A wing of the visitor center at Scotts Bluff National Monument is dedicated to the life and work of William Henry Jackson, and more than 60 of his original paintings are a part of the park’s collection, where they are used to illustrate a vital part of America’s history.


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