Part 3: Westward the Course of the Empire
Alexander Gardner. Across the Continent on the Union Pacific Railway: Westward the Course of the Empire Takes Its Way. Albumen print, 1867; image reproduced with permission of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Photography played an essential role in the Euro-American exploration of the western North America in the 19th century. Beginning in the 1850's one major expedition after another traversed the grandeurs and adversities of the lands west of the Mississippi, and almost without exception one or more photographers went along with each expedition to document the people and places they encountered. The expeditions were a combination of military and scientific undertakings, and the photographers, scientists and guides who joined them were often hired by the U.S. Government for the duration of the travels.
In my mind the photographers on these expeditions qualify more as beneficiaries of government patronage rather than true philanthropy, since they were hired for specific purposes and many of the photographs they took became the property of the U.S. government. I'm including them in this history, though, since they represent the bridge between the earliest acknowledgement by government of photography's values and the genuine philanthropic activities that emerge at the beginning of the 20th century. With this in mind, let's look at some of the highlights of government support for photography during the last half of the 19th century.
As early as 1842 the U. S. Government recognized that photography could be an important expeditionary tool. Government archives indicate that photographs were taken in that year during the Northeast Boundary Survey that mapped the Maine–New Brunswick border. I have not been able to locate the name of a specific photographer so far, and none of those photographs are known to have survived. However, the concept of using photography to document uncharted territories was firmly established by the apparent value of the images in securing the treaty that finally defined the disputed border.
A decade later a Daguerreotypist named Solomon N. Carvalho joined John Frémont's 1853 expedition across the West. Frémont was searching for a viable route for a transcontinental railroad. Carvalho barely survived the arduous trip, but his images helped to document landmarks that were later used to set the final route for the train tracks.
These early expeditions were severely limited by the technology of the times. Daguerreotypes were notoriously difficult to prepare and process, and at best they provided a small and somewhat challenging image to see. It was not until the Civil War that Mathew Brady and others showed what was possible with developing albumen and, later, collodion prints in the field.
Soon after the Civil War ended, the U.S. Government funded a series of expeditions to explore the "uncharted" west. In 1867 Clarence King's Fortieth Parallel Survey employed Timothy O'Sullivan to document their explorations, and the images O'Sullivan produced helped to introduce the grandeurs of the West to people throughout the country. Two years later King became one of the first persons, if not the first, to use photographs to make the case for renewed funding when he purposely displayed O'Sullivan's prints in the Capitol to convince Congress to appropriate more money for further exploration.
A few years later Ferdinand Hayden led the first federally funded survey of the Yellowstone region of Wyoming. He took along William Henry Jackson, whose photographs were instrumental in convincing Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first U.S. National Park.
For the next 20 years and more, the government acted as patrons to dozens of photographers, including A. J. Russell, William Bell, John Karl Hillers and Carleton Watkins. While the trips they made were full of hardships, the compensation and benefits were not insignificant – especially when compared with other photographers who tried to take photographs in western landscapes on their own. For example, O'Sullivan was paid $150 (equivalent to approximately $2,300 in 2015) a month during the Wheeler survey, and all of the photographers' cameras, equipment, supplies, food and shelter were furnished. In addition, much of the heavy equipment was hauled, packed and unpacked by assistants, who also scouted for good locations. Finally, and in some cases most importantly, the expeditions were guarded by troops that fended off sometimes hostile Indians and occasional bandits.
The photographers on these expeditions were part of the then prevalent belief in manifest destiny, a concept that held it was America's moral mission to have dominion over the "less civilized" people and places of the continent. Congress supported and enabled this belief by providing the War Department with funds to carry out various expeditions and explorations. Almost all of these efforts had little regard and sometimes outright disdain for the hundreds of thousands of native people who had lived on the same lands for millennia. In many cases the photographs taken on these expeditions are both irreplaceable records of unspoiled landscapes and poignant reminders of vanishing races that were brutally swept away.
There is little dispute today, however, over the historic value of the photographs that were taken through the government's patronage. By establishing that photography was an indispensable means of showing little-known realities to a broader audience, the federal government set the path for photography as a social change tool at the end of the 19th century.
Read more in the series A Brief History of Photography and Philanthropy