William Henry Jackson


Supriya Joshi takes a trip back to the past and rediscovers the works of William Henry Jackson—a pioneer, visionary and an early practitioner of various processes and techniques in print and image making.

Mounted Albumen showing Garden of the Gods (Colorado, USA), with Pikes Peak in the background, 1887.


There is a rather unusual and unfortunate trope that exists for many early 19th Century photographers. Some of the most talented, hardworking visionary photographers from that time either died too young, or in abject poverty. It became almost like a common thread that connected them all, and yet, here’s the story of William Henry Jackson, a photographer who lived till the ripe old age of 99, engaged in creative activity.

But it’s not just the length of his lifespan that matters, it is also his contribution towards photography. At a time when humanity was only just discovering the medium, he managed to develop and hone a nuanced vision, which has inspired scores of photographers after him.

A hand-tinted colour photochrom shot in Havana., Cuba, 1900.

An Early Introduction

Using a camera as a means of recreation and as a hobby was introduced a mere four years before Jackson was born, so he grew up at a time when people around him had begun exploring the medium. It was an exciting time to be a photographer. His father was amongst the first in his neighbourhood to purchase a camera, but never took a liking to it. The camera then passed to William to use as a toy, but he discovered there was a lot more he could do with a camera than just play with it. Moreover, his mother, who was a painter, instilled in him ways of seeing and the art of composition.

Apart from being a photographer, Jackson also served as a technical advisor for the film Gone with the Wind (1939).

War and Photography

In his early days, he also worked under photographer C C Schoonmaker, where he spent his time learning how to retouch and colourise images. At the age of 19, he served as a garrison in the American Civil War, spending his time making drawings of his friends and other sceneries around him. He would even colourise images of war heroes, and word of his expertise began spreading. Soon after the war, he was offered a job by a leading photographer for a salary of USD 25 per week. Jackson could not refuse such a viable offer, and thus took his first few steps into the world of photography.

Here’s an interesting anecdote about William Henry Jackson—he was the greatgreat nephew of Samuel Wilson, also known as Uncle Sam.

New Orleans, 1890. Mule drawn tram at Henry Clay Monument, Canal Street and St Charles.

Travels to the Beyond

In America, the spirit of travel and adventure took off in a big way during the mid-1800s, with many governmental expeditions taking place to explore the great beyond. In 1870, he became the official photographer for geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden, where they would travel all the way to Yellowstone River and Rocky mountains, a terrain that was never seen before. Jackson would carry bags of camera equipment and make pictures in some of the harshest terrains. He used the collodion process, which was quite cumbersome on its own. Apart from that, he used a stereographic camera, an 8 x 10 plate-size camera and one which was as large as 18 x 22 inches! To carry his equipment, he had to have five assistants and several mules. On top of that, each image would take the better part of an hour to develop. Yet, despite all the issues, Jackson managed to make more than 300 photos from the expedition. People were introduced to the largely untouched landscapes and the beautiful flora and fauna of the country. His images were also crucial in the government establishing Yellowstone as a national park on 1 March 1872. The national park would eventually becoming the breeding grounds for some of the most legendary landscape photographers, including Ansel Adams.

In his lifetime, he wrote more than 50 books, as well as his own autobiography.

Editha, 1903.

Crossing Boundaries

His travels went beyond America, going as far as countries like China, India, Australia, Korea, Japan, Egypt and Tunisia. Here, he photographed the locals and brought back images of a face of mankind that the west had not seen before.

And yet, unlike some of his contemporaries, his pictures are not derogatory… he never looked at the people he photographed as ‘others’, but as a mere reflection of humanity. His photographs tell unheard stories, and in today’s context, they are fantastic tales of our rich heritage, and how much we have changed as people.

Mount Jackson in Yellowstone National Park was christened in honour of him.

Despite their contributions, it is easy to forget about early practitioners like Jackson, but a mere revisiting of his work will open our eyes to what we probably did not know about photography and the world. His simple approach to complex subjects bring forth the need to broaden our own horizons. If for nothing else, his images can surely make us more empathetic photographers.

This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Better Photography.