One of America's earliest and most prolific landscape photographers was born in Keeseville, New York on April 4, 1843. As the oldest of eight children born to blacksmith George Hallock Jackson and watercolor painter Harriet Maria Jackson, he was exposed to various types of art from an early age which he adopted artistic talents by his drawings and sketches.
Mr. Jackson developed a serious interest in photography after learning the daguerreotype process from his father, and after high school, he worked both his first paying job as a background painter for a portrait artist in Troy, NY and then as a photographer's assistant specializing in retouching.
Still at a young age William Jackson enlisted in the Civil war were he served in the Civil War as a member of the 12th Vermont Volunteer Infantry. His superior officers learned of his artistic abilities and he was assigned to sketch the surrounding countryside and never engaged in active fighting. When he served his enlistment, he re-applied, but the examining physician rejected him on the ground of his having an affection of the heart, but his subsequent expeditions through the rock mountains proved the physician had made a mistake.
After the war, he traveled to Nebraska, where he briefly drove oxen for wagon trains before settling in Omaha and opening W.H. Jackson & Brother, Photographers studio in 1867. Two years' later, he married Mary "Mollie" Greer, who died in 1872 after giving birth to a daughter who also died. Mr. Jackson specialized in wet-plate field photography, and was one of the first photographers of Native Americans, including the Omaha, Seminoles, bannocks, Klamaths, Dacotahs, Pawnee, and Winnebago tribes, with his portfolio comprising over 2000 subjects recorded as of 1893. The nature of the Indian superstition that a white mans' photograph would render a part of himself in the power of the white man, combined with the difficulties of the wet plate process in the field only emphasizes the difficulty and monumental accomplishment of Jackson's Indian portrait collection.
One of his clients was the Union Pacific Railroad, which hired Mr. Jackson to provide a photographic record of the Nebraska expansion. These photographs attracted the attention of Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, who was coordinating a geological survey expedition.
From 1870 to 1878, Mr. Jackson worked as the Hayden Survey's official photographer, capturing images of landscapes, mining towns, the splendor of the Rocky Mountains (and his famous Mount of the Holy Cross), the Mesa Verde ruins of Colorado, and the wondrous Yellowstone region. The Hayden Survey expedition - along with Mr. Jackson's photographs, which ultimately amassed to over 50,000 negatives - were the first published images of Yellowstone and were largely responsible for Yellowstone becoming the world's first national park in 1872.
Mr. Jackson married Omaha native Emilie Painter, with whom he had a son and two daughters. He soon established himself as one of America's premier photographers of the western frontier, and was able to successfully employ the wet-plate process despite the many climate challenges it posed. He was the organizer of the Hayden Survey's exhibit at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, and is credited with introducing many Americans to the expansive mountains and prairies of the Midwest. He also took particular pride in documenting Native Americans both in posed portraits and in their daily lives. Mr. Jackson's photographs and detailed descriptions of the Chaco Canyon ruins were first published in 1878.
Mr. Jackson and his family relocated to Denver in 1879, where he opened the Jackon Photographic Company. He embraced the new dry-plate technology, and used it in his extensive travels across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, Mr. Jackson worked as a field photographer for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad company, the Denver and Rio Grand Railroad, and the World's Transportation Commission, where he provided a photographic record of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
In 1898, he joined the Detroit Publishing Company, which at the time was pioneering the colorization of black-and-white negatives into color print postcards. Despite his advancing age, he remained with Detroit Publishing Company until it closed in 1924, and then focused upon composing artistic recreations of the West and important events in history for the National Park Service and as a member of the Oregon Trail Memorable Association.
William Henry Jackson remained active until his death on June 30, 1942 at the age of 99. A true photographic pioneer and Western historian, he published more than 40 books, articles and catalogs from 1874 to 1940. His autobiography, first published in 1940, remains in print.
- 1893 Wilson's Photographic Magazine, (NY, Edward L. Wilson Pub) pp. 228-231
- 1997 Biographical Dictionary of American and Canadian Naturalists and Environmentalists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), pp. 403-404.
- 2005 Here Lies Colorado : Fascinating Figures in Colorado History (Helena, MT: Farcountry Press), pp. 75-77.
- 2004 The Puebloan Society of Chaco Canyon (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press), pp. 96-98.
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