James F. Ryder, “Atlantic & Great Western Railway” (1862), albumen print, overall: 18.9 x 23.5 cm (7 7/16 x 9 1/4 inches), collection of William L. Schaeffer (all images courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

In an unusual inversion of center and periphery, nineteenth-century photographs of the American West have attracted far more attention than those taken in the more settled, less majestic East. In fact, the exhibition East of the Mississippi, currently on view at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, is the first US museum survey of 19th-century photographs of landscapes and other scenic “views,” including urban imagery, that is limited to the eastern United States. While western scenes fed into the American ethos of conquest toward the continent’s farther reaches and summoned a sense of awe toward the sublime landscape, eastern photography is less grandiloquent and ranges more widely, its subjects more varied and socially representative. The photographs in East of the Mississippi are frequently utilitarian, sometimes unabashedly commercial — and often quite marvelous to look at.

The exhibition highlights how these early photographic efforts homed in on Americans’ leisure pursuits, particularly travel to popular getaway spots such as Niagara Falls and New England’s White Mountains, and, mostly, celebrate the nation’s growth, evidenced in the landscape’s transformation through building projects large and small and by the development of the railroads. Formal or aesthetic concerns, though not absent, were far less important than catering to potential buyers. Niche markets soon developed: souvenir-seeking tourists, of course, but also college graduates; the latter were the focus of one George Kendall Warren, who specialized in idyllic images of school campuses and their environs mounted in keepsake albums. As with photographic postcard imagery of well-traveled sites, Warren’s stagings of tranquil collegiate vistas represent the beginnings of a robust if now well-worn tradition: the elite college experience pitched as a picturesque retreat enhanced by the blandishments of nature.

Bierstadt Brothers, Charles and Edward, “The Cathedral, White Mountains, New Hampshire” (c. 1860), albumen print, image: 20.64 x 15.56 cm (8 1/8 x 6 1/8 inches), mat: 45.72 x 38.1 cm (18 x 15 inches), framed: 48.58 x 40.96 x 2.22 cm (19 1/8 x 16 1/8 x 7/8 inches), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.)

It took some time for eastern photography’s pragmatic orientation to be challenged, or at least supplemented, by other aims. Only in the late 1850s and 1860s did American photographers such as John Moran, Charles and Edward Bierstadt (brothers, respectively, of prominent landscape painters), and William James Stillman begin making claims for photography as an art form, through their writings and images. The exhibition displays several paintings alongside photographs to show the dialogue between the two media. The landscape painters became less inclined to smooth out compositional features to accord with reigning conventions of pictorial harmony, while photographers, for their part, aimed for painterly effects. These photographs of Moran, the Bierstadts, and others, with their self-conscious affinities with the fine arts, run counter to the unbroken 19th-century production of pictures more or less determined by practical considerations, though many possess considerable aesthetic value. Their art photographs also look ahead to the aestheticism of the later Pictorialist movement, and indeed Pictorialism has the last word in the exhibition, which concludes with images by Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen that propel, in their moody, lyrical way, American photography out of the 19th century and onto a dusky modernist path.

Thomas H. Johnson, “Inclined Plane G” (c. 1863-1865), albumen print, unframed: 30.48 x 38.74 cm (12 x 15 1/4 inches), mount: 45.72 x 55.88 cm (18 x 22 inches), collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg

The six-decade span of East of the Mississippi was a period of vast metamorphoses on the American continent, including, of course, a civil war; it was also an era of convulsive technological progress. One of the exhibition’s achievements is to tell a complex, braided tale of technological change —apparent both within the eastern landscape, which is shown being tamed, shaped and domesticated through that boundless 19th-century urge for growth and development, and in the very medium of photography, whose early history is so tethered to disruptive innovations. Thus the daguerreotype, initially the primary means to render photographic views, became outmoded by the mid-1850s with the arrival of the wet-collodion process, among other developments. Later, democratizing advancements — first the dry-collodion process, which made photography far easier and accessible, and then the debut of the Kodak camera in 1888, which utterly leveled the photographic playing field — led to the formation of camera clubs and the efforts of “serious” photographers, who immersed themselves in darkroom techniques and other experiments to distinguish their pictures from those of the leisured masses. Although the dynamic isn’t quite the same, one might detect a parallel in the conspicuousness of large-format photography in our own day: the work of artists such as Thomas Struth and Edward Burtynsky, with their mammoth images of remote and at times restricted locales, is readily differentiated from the incessant torrent of iPhone snapshots that now accumulates on a once-unimaginable scale.

Samuel A. Bemis, “Crawford Notch and Hotel, White Mountains, New Hampshire” (1840-1842), daguerreotype, Image: 14.6 x 20 cm (5 3/4 x 7 7/8 inches), lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005

Apart from a handful of well-known figures such as Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, both featured in a section on the Civil War, the exhibition’s photographers are unfamiliar names. Compared to the aristocratic amateurs who helped direct photography’s early evolution in Europe, the Americans were a motley bunch. One pioneer was the Boston watchmaker, real-estate investor, and self-taught dentist Samuel A. Bemis, whose three-year career making daguerreotypes of Boston and New Hampshire began scarcely fifteen months after Daguerre invented the process. A photographer who carefully recorded the conditions during his outings with the camera, he seems like a colorful minor character in some yet-to-be-written historical novel. Similarly, the Philadelphia-based Langenheim brothers (Frederick and William, immigrants from Germany) come across as energetic if not always successful go-getters, making both daguerreotypes and salt-paper prints, patenting their own glass-negative process, and even staging a magic-lantern entertainment (apparently the first to use photography) about the glories of Niagara Falls, which included a recitation read to a pianist’s accompaniment. Discovering such byways of early photographic history is one of the delights of East of the Mississippi and its excellent accompanying catalogue.

Frederick Langenheim and William Langenheim, “Panorama of the Falls of Niagara” (1845), five daguerreotypes, image: 8.89 x 6.99 cm (3 1/2 x 2 3/4 inches), unframed: 30.48 x 45.72 cm (12 x 18 inches), framed: 33.02 x 49.21 cm (13 x 19 3/8 inches), lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman

Even more striking are the examples created by men (all the identified photographers in the exhibition are male) assigned documentary tasks by their military or municipal superiors. Here the commissions’ practical origins can yield to a hard-edged, empiricist poetry, as in many of the images of infrastructure in the exhibition, or even to an aesthetic flowering that the photographer himself might not have anticipated. The gorgeous cyanotypes of the upper Mississippi by the Prussian-born draftsman and mapmaker Peter Henry Bosse, made under the aegis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, transcend their documentary purpose. His “Draw Span of C. & N.W. R.R. Bridge at Clinton, Ia.” (1885) tracks the bridge’s lively rhythm of lines and shapes beneath a cloudless sky; it imparts a modernist crispness that is softened by the oval format (shared by all Bosse’s photographs in the show), the blue paper, and the serenity of the rocky shoreline in the foreground. Created by a man who was neither a professional nor an amateur artist, the image seems perched between different ways of looking, hinting at an aesthetic feel for the industrialized landscape that would fully coalesce only decades later.

Henry Peter Bosse, “Draw Span of C. & N. W. R. R. Bridge at Clinton, Ia” (1885), cyanotype, sheet: 36.8 x 43.7 cm (14 1/2 x 17 3/16 inches), overall: 26.5 x 33.2 cm (10 7/16 x 13 1/16 inches), lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Charles Wehrenberg and Sally Larsen, 2014

A sense of concord between the landscape and the signs of human encroachment upon it is as evident here, in work created for the Corps of Engineers, as in the many boosterish photographs commissioned by railroad companies to tout and document their territorial reach. As stressed by the exhibition’s curator, Diane Waggoner, one of eastern landscape photography’s persistent aims was to express a harmonious balance between the landscape and the people who were turning it to their own uses and desires. But if (apart from the photographs made during and immediately after the Civil War) an affirmative, upbeat attitude toward American progress prevailed, a dissenting current also emerged that was devoted to upholding the landscape’s integrity and beauty against human depredations. It was aligned with activism: Seneca Ray Stoddard, a photographer who specialized in scenes of the Adirondacks, testified and showed his photographs before the New York State Assembly on behalf of the preservationist Adirondack Park Bill, which passed in May 1882. An adept creator of inspiring views — one can readily picture something like his “Avalanche Lake, Adirondacks” (c. 1888), with its tiny silhouetted hiker enveloped in a hospitably wild landscape, updated for an REI catalogue —Stoddard kept up his environmentalist commitments for the rest of his career. His “Drowned Lands of the Lower Raquette, Adirondacks” (c. 1888) is a distant forebear of Robert Adams’s harrowing photographs lamenting the rapacious effects of cross-cut logging.

Seneca Ray Stoddard, “Avalanche Lake, Adirondacks” (c. 1888), albumen print, image: 37.15 x 47.63 cm (14 5/8 x 18 3/4 inches), prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Beyond the direct affinities among images from America’s 19th-century past and our picture-saturated present, so many of the photographs in East of the Mississippi represent more general photographic urges, impulses that remain with us: we’ll never stop embodying our modest fantasies of leisure in photographic form, and, though our excitement has mostly migrated to the digital sphere, we still make a fetish of technological progress. But now the landscape itself, and its human agents of change, seem more melancholy than they would have appeared to these first generations of American photographers (excepting, again, the mournful imagery prompted by the Civil War). Their images’ stillness, a by-product of necessarily long exposure times, belies the propulsion of a nation racing toward a future it was convinced it could fashion to its will. The historical distance we’ve traveled is felt most keenly in those pictures of works projects, public or privately financed, that feature prominently in the exhibition. Railroads and high-speed travel no longer make us giddy; sites of resource extraction are apt to be viewed as ecological crime scenes. The transient structures that dotted the 19th-century landscape to abet in its conquest evoke, from our post-industrial vantage, the specter of a more despondent reality: the ruins of a machine age whose energies are now depleted.

East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography continues at the National Gallery of Art (6th & Constitution Ave NW, Washington, D.C.) through July 16.

The exhibition will travel to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where it will be exhibited from October 5, 2017 through January 7, 2018.

James Gibbons is an associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.