Selections from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

January 31, 2012

 

 
New frontiers
New frontiers: John Wesley Powell's Second Colorado River Expedition, Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, May 22, 1871
Photographer Unknown

The scent of sun-warmed leather teases the senses as the worn album cover opens to a page of faded albumen photographs, small images that hint at rugged adventure. An unsigned note, written in pencil, reveals their origin:

"These Photoes was taken by Major Powell of the U.S. Geological Survey in the year 1868 and 1873 along the Grand Canyon of Colorado and Arizona. Some of them in the Azteck region and some in California. Photoes taken by the old Nitrate of Silver process."

Major John Wesley Powell's second expedition along the Colorado River was among the most famous of the midnineteenth- century explorations of the Western frontier. The album's crisply detailed photographs capture mountains, waterfalls, wild rivers, canyons, desert landscapes, and Native Americans, giving one a sense of the discoveries Powell's men made on their forays in modern-day Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming. They also reflect the deep knowledge and sheer physical effort required to produce images in the early history of photography.

At the time, photography was a chemical process. As with cooking, the most time-consuming part was preparation. Glass plates were coated with a wet collodion solution, immediately inserted into the camera, exposed, developed, and then fixed while still wet. The procedure worked smoothly in a photographic studio, but it was an enormous challenge in the field. Outdoor photographers required a portable darkroom that contained chemicals for creating light-sensitive surfaces, more chemicals for developing and fixing the image, fresh water, glass plates, drying racks, and grinding stones to smooth the edges of the glass. They also carried multiple wooden cameras of different sizes, lenses, and tripods.

Powell worked with three photographers during the expedition: E.O. Beaman, who was discharged early on; James Fennemore, who left because of illness; and John Hillers, who was hired on as a boatman in Salt Lake City and volunteered to assist Beaman, learning to make negatives on the job. Hillers' diary, which is also available in the library, describes a thrilling, yet arduous, journey. "Pulled out early. Ran five rapids then came to a buster," begins an entry for August 28, 1872. "Let down by line, made it, pulled out, ran another. Landed on the left. Made two fine negatives. Had dinner and pulled out into a rapid, then came to a let down."

Yale University owns the only other known copy of the album.

—Karen Glynn

Glynn is the photography archivist for Duke Libraries.

http://library.duke.edu/specialcollections