“Gold! Gold from the American River!” So cried the carpenter James W. Marshall on January 24, 1848, as the story goes, when he found flakes of the precious metal at Coloma, California, thus ushering into the region a wave of steely-eyed prospectors. As word of the California Gold Rush spread around the world, photographers, too, arrived, and themselves struck metaphorical gold. They set up studios in wagons and captured the historic frenzy around them, making the Gold Rush the first major event in the country to be documented extensively through the then-new medium.
Portraits of individual miners and scenes of men crowded on the rocky landscape are currently on view in an ongoing exhibition at the Canadian Photography Institute at the National Gallery of Canada, organized in collaboration with Library and Archive Canada. Curated by the Institute’s director Luce Lebart, Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush features over 70 photographs from the late ’40s and ’50s — mostly daguerreotypes, but also a number of tintypes and ambrotypes.
It was only a decade prior to Marshall’s cry that Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, and the French government purchased the patent rights to place the process in the public domain. The fever for photography, as Lebart notes, fortuitously overlapped with the fever for gold.
“Two great myths or crazy dreams — filling your pockets with the most precious metal and fixing your image in metal — became a reality in the mid-nineteenth century,” she writes in the exhibition catalogue, co-published with RVB BOOKS. “The affinity between these latter day argonauts and the daguerreotype, the first commercially successful photographic process using a silvered copper plate, was immediate and intense.”
During the Gold Rush, photographers typically took studio portraits of miners right when they arrived in California — often after they disembarked from a ship — or prior to their departure. The resulting daguerreotypes in the exhibition capture men — all Westerners — young and old, at times holding the tools of the trade, such as a shovel or a pan. Some subjects show off the precious nuggets or flakes they have; the captured gold is at times retouched by hand with metal mixtures so the treasures glimmer against an otherwise black-and-white image.
As these portraits attest, mining was the work of men, many of whom left their families at home while they journeyed to California. The homogeneity of these sitters is especially notable, however, because they speak to the government’s policy of white racial superiority that enabled the large-scale mining. As the region’s population surged and mining towns popped up on indigenous territories, white settlers violently displaced and murdered Native Americans. As a direct result of the Gold Rush, the indigenous population in the area dropped from about 300,000 to an estimated 30,000 by 1870.
What the photographs in Gold and Silver do implicitly record is the violence inflicted on the natural landscape. Scenes show men digging away with shovels and building scaffolds in large mining operations that upheave the earth. While early prospectors worked manually with pans and other tools, as more men arrived, miners took to diverting entire rivers and using hydraulic jets to speed up their excavations. The environmental damage from this work lasts to this day, long after the hype for gold gradually subsided. In these images, what also remains is the hope, excitement, and hunger that drove the movement, recorded in precise and haunting detail.
Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush continues at the National Gallery of Canada (380, promenade Sussex, Ottawa, ON) through April 2, 2018.