Jackson, William Henry

American (1843-1942)

William Henry Jackson is best know for his photographs of uncharted territory in the American West, but he began his career as a painter. Inspired by his painter mother, Jackson received enough training to render him something of a master by age 19, but he was drafted to fight in the Civil War for nine months. Upon discharge, he found that he had lost his passion for painting, broke off his engagement to a young woman and moved westward.

Jackson settled in Omaha, working in his brother’s photography studio. A taste for adventure found him in exotic places with a camera in hand, so he began taking pictures. Posing as a “missionary,” Jackson captured images of Native Amercians. He rode the Union Pacific Railroad, documenting the scenery for promotional purposes. He even managed to win himself a spot on an 1871 geological survey that resulted in the creation of Yellowstone; his are some of the first images of the this national treasure. What makes Jackson’s work doubly impressive is the fact that he made his pictures using three cameras and some of the most cumbersome equipment, often necessitating 5-7 men and several mules to transport it all. An accident once cost Jackson a month of his work, but he returned undaunted to the out-of-the-way site to take the pictures again. Jackson’s later commissions included the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and an all-expenses paid trip around the world, but he eventually turned his attention to printing and publishing his and others’ work, netting him a huge profit for several years. When his company went defunct in 1924, he took on a final project: producing murals of the West for the walls of the Interior building in DC.