In the 19th century, William Henry Jackson introduced many Americans to the scenic wonders of the country’s West — and to the power of landscape photography.
Born in northern New York in 1843, he first became a painter and illustrator, served in the Civil War, then drifted to California. Settling down for a time, he set up a photo studio in Omaha. But, wanderlust drew the young man westward again, this time to document construction of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Ferdinand Hayden, the leader of a major survey of the West, saw Jackson’s work and hired him as a photographer. It was a demanding job. Jackson routinely lugged 300 pounds of large-format cameras, glass plates and a portable darkroom on muleback. Through his lens, he captured the wonders of Yellowstone, then the Rocky Mountains.
In September 1874 he was at Mesa Verde in western Colorado. Spotting a stone dwelling high on a canyon wall, Jackson and journalist Ernest Ingersoll negotiated the 800-foot climb to reach it. But, night was falling, so he returned the next morning, set up his 5-by-8 camera, and made the exposure of Two Story House — the first known photograph of a Southwestern cliff dwelling.
Jackson returned to explore farther into the Colorado Plateau and make thousands more images. But, it was his photo of Two Story House that introduced the public to the future Mesa Verde National Park.
William Henry Jackson kept traveling, and photographing, until he died at age 99 — a true pioneer of photography’s first century.