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Just a year after Louis Daguerre’s 1839 introduction of his photographic invention in France, the most popular natural wonder in the United States had its first portrait taken. Unlike the photography of the American West that would soon be undertaken by people such as Carleton Watkins and would emphasize the sublime beauty of untouched vistas, British scientist Hugh Lee Pattinson’s 1840 daguerreotypes of Niagara Falls show houses in one and a solitary visitor in another. The landscape photography of the eastern United States that followed in the 19th century was similarly complex in its representations of nature, human development, and, eventually, environmental destruction.
East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography opened this month with 175 objects, from daguerreotypes to cyanotypes, at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, DC. According to the museum, the exhibition is the first “to focus exclusively on photographs made in the eastern half of the United States during the 19th century.” The show is organized by NGA in collaboration with the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will travel in October.
“Pattinson’s choice of the falls as subject and his attempt to adopt established pictorial standards showed not only the possibilities of the new medium but also the role that photography could play in the evolving understanding of landscape within American culture,” Diane Waggoner, NGA curator of 19th-century photographs, writes in an accompanying catalogue published by Yale University Press.
Many of these early photographers, including Pattinson, were scientists, not artists, and thus a large number of images in East of the Mississippi take a documentary approach. Yet the exhibition and thorough catalogue highlight an often overlooked aspect of art history. When painter Thomas Moran was sketching the mountains of Pennsylvania, his brother, photographer John Moran, was working with a camera right alongside him. John argued in an 1865 paper, read at the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, that the photographic medium “speaks the same language and addresses the same sentiments” as the “fine arts.” Meanwhile, the painter Albert Bierstadt also had photographer brothers: Charles and Edward Bierstadt. In 1860, the three collaborated on a series of studies of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, with Albert helping to guide the points of view for an aesthetic appreciation of the terrain.
“Landscape held a powerful place in the American imagination in the nineteenth century,” Jennifer Raab, assistant professor of the history of art at Yale University, writes in the catalogue. “Whereas European history was made visible through the material remnants of the past — the ruins of antiquity — American history found its origin stories in the natural world.”
While the promise of western expansion was expressed in landscape photographs of Yosemite or the Great Plains (which frequently omitted any indigenous people living there), eastern landscape photographs of the time showcased how Americans were already adapting to the country’s “wild” topography through industry and urbanization. A horde of steamships gathers at the St. Louis levee in Thomas M. Easterly’s 1852 daguerreotype of the rapidly expanding city; railroad tracks cut through a forest of towering trees in James F. Ryder’s 1862 albumen prints for the Atlantic & Great Western Railway.
As the decades went on, coal, tanneries, mills, canals, and railroads caused increasingly radical changes to the land. The Civil War carved its own ecological scars, as seen in Andrew J. Russell’s photographs of rifle pits and other military infrastructure in Virginia. Landscape photography in the latter half of the 19th century became more dire than optimistic.
“Unlike the history of landscape photography in Europe, which fits much more neatly into an existing art-historical framework, or even that of western America, which comprises big, ambitious pictures circumscribed by expansionist myths, the history of the early eastern landscape engages with such a diverse set of economics, products, and people that it defies easy categorization,” Russell Lord, curator of photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art, notes in the catalogue. “In America, in the 1840s through the 1860s, personal expression and artistic endeavor were the exception and the interested landscape, beholden to commercial, scientific, and industrial endeavor, was the rule.”
A later endeavor, though, was the protection of the landscapes before they were totally wrecked (for instance, the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916). The NGA has an online map where you can find the locations of 50 of the exhibition’s photographs and compare them to the present, sometimes radically altered, satellite views. Given the precarious state of contemporary American environmentalism, when Trump is considering rolling back the Clean Water Rule and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is questioning the contribution of CO2 to global warming, the tone of the late 19th-century images feels as timely as ever. Seneca Ray Stoddard’s 1888 photograph “Drowned Lands of the Lower Raquette, Adirondacks” features an isolated figure turned away from the camera, much as in Pattinson’s 1840 Niagara Falls daguerreotype. Unlike that earlier spectator who stood in awe of nature’s majesty, however, Stoddard’s man, photographed at eye level, is staring out at the skeletal remains of trees drowned by an industrial dam.
East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography continues at the National Gallery of Art (6th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC) through July 16 . The accompanying catalogue is published by Yale University Press.