Imagine receiving a book containing the wonder of unfamiliar scenes illustrated in a new medium on paper. The year is 1856, and, though you have heard of San Francisco, you've never been there. The title of the book is San Francisco Album, and it contains thirty-one striking photographs. It's like nothing you've ever seen. Photography is in its infancy, just seventeen years old, and though you are familiar with daguerreotypes, photographs on paper are rare, and photographs in a book are almost unheard of (to date only half a dozen books published in America contained mounted photographs). A Scotsman named Fardon has captured through the lens of his camera the excitement and prosperity of boom-time San Francisco. Just seven years after the discovery of gold, this young metropolis is proudly shown with extensive docks, impressive mercantile buildings, and lavish residences. The photographic illustrations are breathtaking. The details are finer than the best engravings. The tonal range is more extensive than the richest aquatints. The thirty-one photographs are large, sharp, and almost magical in their detail. You are looking at the first photographically illustrated book showing a part of the trans-Mississippi West.
By the end of the Civil War, a new type of illustrated book showing the American West was evolving. Gone were the hand-colored prints of Bodmer and Catlin. Soon photographs of the majestic Yosemite Valley, the Yellowstone region, and the beautiful Pacific Coast were to be published. Great engineering feats were pictured in photographs, such as the massive effort to build a trans-continental railroad and the building of the Kansas City Bridge over the Missouri River. Even some of the more ephemeral publications such as those devoted to land promotion, industry boosterism, the search for immigrants, and the self-published travelogue would be issued with original photographs for illustrations.
Many of the books described in this exhibition date from the wet-plate period of photography. At that time, to create a single negative, a glass plate had to be transported along with a camera to the site. The plate would be sensitized by chemicals, carefully exposed to light through the lens of the camera, and then developed in the dark, washed, and carried back home. The glass had to be flawless and the chemicals pure. Risks to the successful completion of a series of photographs included severe weather changes, poor or nonexistent trails into a rugged back country, or bad luck with pack animals, any of which might result in broken glass plates. For the great Yosemite photographs of Watkins, Weed, and Muybridge, numerous glass plates, each larger than 20 x 16 inches, had to be hauled up mountains, placed in a camera large enough to handle them, properly exposed, developed and brought home, where still other risks might strike as they did for T. J. Hines. A Chicago photographer, Hines made hundreds of photographs of Captain John W. Barlow's reconnaissance of Wyoming and Montana territories in 1871 but waited until his return to Chicago to make his prints. All the negatives were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire.
When the photographer was back in the studio producing prints for a book, large numbers of photographs had to be uniformly printed. John Carbutt stated that for his Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago, containing 110 cabinet-size photographs of prominent men, he created 50,000 albumen prints for the 450 copies issued. The expenses could be staggering. In 1874, the secretary of war approved an expenditure of $5,000 for printing official sets of the Wheeler Survey photographs. The edition size was a little over 300 sets. This did not include the photographer's costs, which for Timothy O'Sullivan was $90 per thousand large albumen photographs.
For the purposes of this exhibition, we decided to include any published work of at least thirty two pages with more than two mounted photographs. This includes published albums and portfolios. The catalogue listings are copy-specific; each book is described according to the copy at DeGolyer Library. Where possible, provenance has been supplied. Bindings, book plates, inscriptions, and other specific attributes are noted. Also included is a complete collation of each work and full plate list. Finally, we list all books this researcher has located in the literature. No doubt other titles will be added, but in the meantime we hope this exhibition catalogue and checklist will be useful to others interested in the history of photography and book publication relating to the American West.
For their suggestions and assistance on this project, I acknowledge and thank Denise Bethel, Michael Dawson, Jane Elder, Carol Fruchter, Thom Harrell, Mike Heaston, Jean Moss, Peter Palmquist, Bill Reese, Richard Rudisill, Marni Sandweiss, and Alan Scuba.
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