Photographer William Henry Jackson

Michele Wanke
William Henry Jackson is a famous landscape photographer.

Photographer William Henry Jackson's historic contributions to world of photography are immortalized in his awe-inspiring images of popular western landmarks.

William Henry Jackson: The Early Years

William Henry Jackson is known as one of the most prolific American photographers of the late 1800s and early 1900s, though his childhood was rather uneventful. Jackson was born on April 4, 1843 in Keeseville, New York. He was the first of seven children born to artistic parents who helped their son cultivate his own talents in the field of visual arts.

As a teen, Jackson was hailed as skillful painter. He specialized in American pre-Civil War scenes until 1862. In October of that year, Jackson became a solider and fought in the American Civil War for nine months. The following year, his regiment disassembled, prompting Jackson to leave his home in the Northeast and head for the American West.

Photographer William Henry Jackson

In 1867, Jackson settled down in Omaha, Nebraska and got into the photography business with his brother Edward. However, life as a portrait photographer didn't suit the adventurous shutterbug. In 1869, Jackson applied for and won a commission from the Union Pacific Railroad to document the scenery along their route for promotional purposes.

The following year Ferdinand Hayden, the leader of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories, invited Jackson on a survey of Wyoming as an unpaid photographer. However, after viewing Jackson's impeccable picture-taking skills Hayden offered the enthusiastic shooter the position of official photographer.

The spectacular landscape images Jackson took during his time with Hayden are legendary, and to this day they are listed among the United States Geological Survey's most prized possessions. The collections include:

  • Yellowstone National Park
  • The Grand Tetons
  • Mount of the Holy Cross
  • Colorado Rockies
  • The Ute reservation at Las Pinos, Colorado
  • Cliff ruins in Mancos Canyon, near Mesa Verde, Colorado

Yellowstone Pioneer

Jackson's photos of Yellowstone are world-famous.

Jackson made history for taking some of the first photographs of the Yellowstone region, and later he used them to persuade a skeptical United States Congress to declare the area a national treasure. According to congressional records, for nearly 40 years prior to 1871, explorers and artists had told stories about and rendered drawings portraying the magnificence of Yellowstone, where some claimed water boiled in wild-colored springs, hidden canyons revealed bizarre rock formations and geysers exploded from deep underground. However, the stories and sketches were often thought to be exaggerations. It wasn't until Jackson was able to provide photographic proof of the stunning landscapes that Congress took notice.

Jackson's images so completely captured the imagination of lawmakers that Congress designated Yellowstone as the first national park in March 1872. The following year, the Department of the Interior compiled 37 of Jackson's photographs into a portfolio, which was presented to Congress in lobbying funds for future expeditions to the West.

Jackson's Photography Challenges

Jackson's journey documenting Yellowstone did not come without challenges. The professional photographer was forced to endure radical climate changes during his time shooting the geological formations of Yellowstone. In addition, Jackson was required to compose, focus and develop his pictures in harsh conditions. While in the Yellowstone region, Jackson used "wet-plate" or collodion processing, which required performing all the necessary operations on the spot, because development could not wait. This meant hauling cartloads of equipment weighing more than 125 pounds, including two or three cameras as big as some television sets. In addition, Jackson was made to carry as many as 100 glass plates for negatives, as well as a variety of lenses and tripods for each of the cameras. Jackson also had to set up a tent as a darkroom, pack jugs of chemicals and transport an assortment of incidental gear from one scenic spot to the next.

Where to View Photographer William Henry Jackson's Work

Jackson's hard work and determination paid off in a big way. His photos of America's most stunning landscapes are considered iconic images. His ability to capture striking composition through the contrast of light and dark is remarkable. In addition, his combination of lines, textures, and shapes create a monumental effect that does justice to the grandeur of his subjects.

To view samples of photographer William Henry Jackson's work, visit the following:

Interesting Facts About William Henry Jackson

After his stint documenting the Old West, Jackson moved to Denver and opened a commercial studio, but later closed it to take a job as the official photographer of the World Transportation Commission researching public transportation. That job allowed Jackson to visit Africa, India, and Russia. Later, Harper's Weekly hired him to document future trips around the world.

Some other interesting fact about the world-famous photographer include:

  • In 1924, Jackson moved to Washington, D.C. to produce murals of the Old West for the new U.S. Department of the Interior building.
  • Jackson acted as a technical advisor for the filming of Gone with the Wind.
  • Jackson was a great-great nephew of Samuel Wilson, the progenitor of America's national symbol Uncle Sam.
  • Jackson lived to be 99.
  • Upon his death in 1942, Jackson was recognized as one of the last surviving Civil War veterans, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Photographer William Henry Jackson