Early Photography of Jackson Hole: William Henry Jackson

Research and Text by Samantha Ford, Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum.

In a 1941 interview with Department of the Interior employee Shannon Allen, William Henry Jackson was a day away from his 98th birthday. Jackson was asked to reflect on his long life; from an early childhood education in art, service in the Civil War, life on the trail as a bullwhacker, survey work in the West, documentation of the railroads, and international travel spanning three continents. When prompted to compare the scenery of the United States to that of the rest of the world, it was Jackson Hole, the Tetons and Yellowstone that jumped to the front of Jackson’s memory. He described that this corner of the country cannot be paralleled elsewhere. He credited the nine years he spent with Ferdinand V. Hayden in the 1870s as the most interesting period of his life, despite his two-year contract with the World’s Transportation Commission in Australia, China, Russia, and eastern Europe.

Photo Courtesy of the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center

When Jackson first started out on the Hayden Expedition in 1870, he traveled with two assistants, several pack mules and 400 pounds of equipment. The animals often could not reach the peaks he was determined to document, so he and his assistants would haul everything up themselves. It was a delicate process, over the steepest and most hazardous terrain of the survey, and they had to be especially careful with their fragile pieces of equipment necessary for the photography technology of the time – the wet collodion process. Jackson described early photographers as chemists, needing several vials of chemicals including nitric acid and silver nitrate. From start to finish, Jackson and his assistants could get the entire process down to about 20 minutes, from preparing the glass plate negative, to the exposure, and development process. The entire team clung to mountainsides in their “dark tent” and stored their glass negatives in cloth and rawhide bags. Sometimes they would be stranded an entire day waiting for a storm to pass. Jackson’s skill, perseverance, and fortitude would create the first photographic images of the future Yellowstone National Park and the Teton mountain range.

Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum Collection, 1958.2725.001

In 1889, the Kodak Company introduced rolled film and the box camera. Jackson adopted this revolutionary piece of technology, glad to leave his heavy entourage behind. Following the end of the Hayden Survey in 1878, Jackson settled in Denver, CO until the economic panic of 1893 forced him to close his studio. In a lucky break, the Detroit Publishing Company purchased his collection of 20,000 images and hired him on as a colorist. Eventually becoming the manager, Jackson was one of the early pioneers of the postcard industry. After his retirement in 1924, Jackson remained busy as an artist, creating narrative depictions of Old West history. He wrote two autobiographies and toured the West for public appearances at historical societies, history conventions, festivals and other events. When Jackson embarked on his trips west in his 80s and 90s, he brought with him his 35mm Leica handheld camera. He died at the age of 99, commemorated as one of the last survivors of the Civil War, as a Western pioneer, and as one of the country’s most influential early photographers.

Fast-forward to the 1970s in Jackson Hole when photography of extreme sports, particularly skiing, became incredibly popular and important to defining this place as a mecca for outdoor recreation. While the challenges were quite a bit different than Jackson’s time, there are still some incredible stories to be told about this more recent era. Join the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum on January 31st for a Beers & Banter program with long time photographers Wade McKoy and Bob Woodall.


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