Jackson, William Henry (4 Apr. 1843-30 June 1942), photographer and painter, was born in Keeseville, New York, the son of George Hallock Jackson, a blacksmith and carriage builder, and Harriet Maria Allen. Jackson's academic education ended when he was about sixteen. His mother taught him to draw and paint in watercolor. She presented him with a copy of J. G. Chapman's American Drawing Book, of which Jackson wrote, "No single thing in my life, before or since, has ever been so important to me." Jackson's father experimented with the daguerreotype photography process, and though he did not pursue photography himself, he kept the camera and gave parts of it to Jackson as a toy.
In 1858 Jackson began his career as a photographic retouching artist in C. C. Schoonmaker's studio in Troy, New York. In 1860 he went to work in Frank Mowrey's studio in Rutland, Vermont. It was here that Jackson gained a knowledge of photographic and business practices. He served in the Union army between 1862 and 1863, part of the time acting as staff artist and map maker. Upon finishing his military service, he returned to Frank Mowrey's studio. He worked in several different Vermont studios until 1866, when he had a falling out with his fiancée and as a result moved west. He opened his first photographic studio in 1867 in Omaha, Nebraska, with his younger brother Edward. In 1869 Jackson married Mary "Mollie" Greer. She died in childbirth in 1872.
Jackson's move west signaled the beginning of his career as a landscape photographer. The construction of the railroad and the territory it crossed were subjects of intense interest. Knowing this, Jackson lobbied the Union Pacific Railroad and received an order for 10,000 views along the train's route. To carry out the commission, Jackson and his assistant, Arundel C. Hull, received passes to ride on the Union Pacific Railroad. He soon discovered that his work in the studio was far different from photography on the move. The technical challenges that Jackson faced--outfitting a portable darkroom, for example--proved to be invaluable field experience. These images, reviewed by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, director of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, led to Hayden's invitation to Jackson to join the survey team. Jackson did so in 1870 and stayed on until 1878.
The team's first season was spent on the Lodge Pole, Chugwater, Platte, and Sweetwater rivers, and among its members were both Jackson and the painter Sanford Gifford. The 1871 season, which included Jackson and painter Thomas Moran, was spent surveying Utah, Nevada, and the territory that would later become Yellowstone. Jackson and Moran's friendship influenced their respective representations of the landscape. During this time Yellowstone took on national significance. Congress began debating the question of designating Yellowstone a national park. While the debate was in progress, an exhibition of materials from the Yellowstone survey, including Jackson's photographs, was installed. This was one of the ways in which Jackson's photographs aided lobbyists in their efforts to convince Congress to make Yellowstone the first national park, which it became on 1 March 1872.
Jackson launched his second season with the survey group with an exploration of Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, and mining operations in the Montana territory. From 1873 through 1878 the survey focused on Colorado and the four corners region. Jackson discovered and photographed the Mountain of the Holy Cross (1873) and the Mancos Canyon Ruins (1874-1875, Mesa Verde, Colo.). In 1875 Jackson developed an exhibition of the survey findings for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This exhibit included Jackson's photographs, artifacts, and a diorama of the Mancos Canyon Ruins. In 1877 an unsuccessful attempt to use a dry plate process resulted in a loss of the season's work. During this period (in 1873) Jackson married Emilie Painter, with whom he had three children. Emilie died in 1918, and Jackson did not remarry.
In 1879 Jackson established a studio in Denver and resumed work as a commercial photographer. He focused on the tourist market for landscape images, and his partner, Albert E. Rinehardt, produced portraits. Their partnership lasted until 1894. While established in Denver, Jackson continued to travel extensively, photographing the routes of the Santa Fe and B. & O. Railroads (1892); the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893), on a commission by Daniel Burnham; and the World's Transportation Commission (1894-1896). Jackson moved to Detroit in 1898 to join the Detroit Photographic Company, later the Detroit Publishing Company, a firm specializing in national and international tourist views. He remained with the firm until 1924, when it went bankrupt.
Jackson spent the years between 1924 and the end of his life painting. He was commissioned by the Oregon Trail Memorial Association in New York to make watercolors and oils based on events and people along the trail. In addition, in 1936 Jackson was hired by the Works Progress Administration to paint murals based on the survey. In 1937 he obtained a position painting for the National Park Service. Jackson died in New York and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
During his prolific career, Jackson photographed numerous views of the West between Nebraska and California, from cliff dwellings to industrial urban centers. His photographs not only fully describe the transformation of the West but also manifest the eastern perception of the West within the greater vision of the United States as a country. As evidence of how the West was transformed and as part of the process of defining that change and the response to it, his photographs remain significant to the history of the region and the country as a whole.
Various collections of Jackson's photographs are in the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Archives, the Colorado State Historical Society, the International Museum of Photography, the National Park Service, and the United States Geological Service. Jackson was involved in two publications about his life, his autobiography, Time Exposure (1940), and a second book written with Howard R. Driggs, editor of the Pioneer Life Series for boys, called The Pioneer Photographer (1934). Jackson's diaries covering 1866-1874 were published in 1959 as The Diaries of William Henry Jackson, Frontier Photographer, ed. LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen (volume 10 in the Far West and the Rockies Historical Series). Jackson's landscape photography is the subject of Peter B. Hale's monograph, William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape (1988); and his paintings are presented with a foreword by his son, Clarence Seymour Jackson, in The Veritable Art of William Henry Jackson (1959). Jackson's photography is discussed in the context of the American West in Weston Naef and James Wood, Era of Exploration: The Rise Of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885 (1975).
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Kathleen Butler. "Jackson, William Henry";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.