American Landscape Photographs of the Nineteenth Century

While the great photographic tradition in Europe in the nineteenth century dealt chiefly with portraiture, American photographers at that time were concerned with defining the vast and uncharted landscape. Their photographs have formed the basis for much that has followed in landscape photography, and twentieth-century photographers continue to proclaim an enormous debt to their nineteenth-century forebearers.

A revolution occurred in American photography in the late 1850’s, after the invention and widespread use of wet-collodion plates. This technological advance – one of many to emerge from a scientific renaissance at mid-century – coincided with an intense public interest in nature and an enormous production of art and literature dealing with natural themes. Photographers joined the movement towards nature and made photographs of landscapes with more seriousness and success than ever before.

The government surveys of the western territories were organized immediately before and after the first transcontinental railroad penetrated the West in 1869, and photographers were present as important adjuncts to the exploration and construction parties. The photographs they made have long been seen as mere social and scientific documents but are now understood as images that broadened the boundaries of the photographic art.

Included in the exhibition are works by Carleton E. Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, Eadward Muybridge, William Rau, George N. Barnard, Andrew Joseph Russell, and William Henry Jackson among others.

All of the views are albumen prints made from glass plate negatives, some as large as eighteen by twenty-two inch “mammoth plates”. Early practitioners photographing in remote areas traveled with costly and cumbersome supplies, including a portable darkroom. The glass plates required on the site sensitizing, and the image had to be exposed and processed before the plate could dry. A practical dry plate process was developed in the mid 1870’s which made the process less difficult, but nonetheless an arduous procedure in comparison to our present day roll film and hand-held cameras.

This exhibition will run concurrently with “Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West” at the Oakland Museum from December 16 – February 19, 1984.

CARLETON E. WATKINS: Seal Rocks, Farallon Islands, c. 1868