Digital Commonwealth

Photographs of the American West

Boston Public Library

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Includes Carleton Watkins photographs of Yosemite Valley, Eadward Muybridge's nine panel panorama of San Francisco from California Hill, 1877, Alexander Gardner's photographs from Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad, Timothy O'Sullivan's and William Bell's photographs for the War Department's Wheeler Survey from 1871 to 1874, A.J. Russell's The Great West Illustrated, photographs by W.H. Jackson and John K. Hillers, photographs of Indians by Rinehart, and others.

Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad: Route of the 35th Parallel
In 1867, Alexander Gardner was appointed chief photographer to the Eastern Division of Union Pacific Railway (renamed the Kansas Pacific Railway in March 1869). In the fall of 1867, Gardner traveled from Washington D.C. to St. Louis, Missouri where he met up with the survey party seeking the best route for the proposed southern branch of transcontinental railroad. From St. Louis, the survey party traveled through Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona to San Francisco, California. The photographs, taken in during the expedition in 1867 and 1868, were published in a portfolio of 127 albumen photographs entitled "Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad (Route of the 35th Parallel)" circa 1869. The Boston Public Library is fortunate to have in its collection a rare, nearly complete copy of the portfolio. Of the 127 original photographs, only images No. 44 and No. 65 are missing.

Frank A. Rinehart Photographs
Frank A. Rinehart, a commercial photographer in Omaha, Nebraska, was commissioned to photograph the 1898 Indian Congress, part of the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition. More than five hundred Native Americans from thirty-five tribes attended the conference, providing the gifted photographer and artist an opportunity to create a stunning visual document of Native American life and culture at the dawn of the 20th century. Although the portraits are posed and artistically lighted in his studio, they have a candid intimacy that allows his subjects individuality and dignity, a quality not shared by most 19th-century ethnographic photography.

Rinehart printed the photographs as platinum prints, a photographic medium known for its delicate tonal range and permanence.

Great West Illustrated in a Series of Photographic Views Across the Continent
The Great West illustrated in a series of photographic views across the Continent, taken along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad, west from Omaha, Nebraska with an annotated table of contents, giving a brief description of each view, its peculiarities, characteristics and connection with the different points on the road. By A.J. Russell.

Photographs From Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian
In 1869, the United States War Department sponsored a series of expeditions, under the command of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler, to explore and survey land west of the 100th meridian. Former Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan was hired to document the Expedition of 1871. O'Sullivan would also serve as photographer on the Expeditions of 1873 and 1874 while William Bell replaced O'Sullivan during the Expedition of 1872.

From 1871 through 1874, the expeditions led by Wheeler would cover parts of California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. Using the cumbersome wet-collodion process, O'Sullivan and Bell took hundreds of photographs over the course of their four years on the surveys. Many of their photographs were used as sources for illustrations in government publications including Wheeler's final report. The War Department also published several series of albumen photographic plates and a set of stereographs.

The Boston Public Library's collection of Photographs from Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian is comprised of three separate sets: Mounted photographs from the 1871, 1872, and 1873 expeditions; a special set including images from 1871, 1872, 1873, and also the 1874 expedition, with descriptive legends for each plate; and a set of 50 stereographic views in the original box (along with three duplicate stereographs acquired by the library in 1972).

While the intent of the photographic documentation of the Wheeler Surveys was purely informational, the collection represents some of the earliest landscape photography of the American West--the beginning of an aesthetic tradition that led to and influenced the work of many photographers, including Ansel Adams, Mark Klett, and Robert Adams.

Locations in this Collection: