York University History Professor Dr. Tim McNeese has published his latest book, William Henry Jackson: How Yellowstone’s Famous Photographer Captured the American West The book is published through Rowman & Littlefield’s Two Dot imprint.
This book follows the publication of McNeese’s previous biographical publication, Time in the Wilderness: The Formative Years of John “Blackjack” Pershing in the American West, which was published in 2021 with the University of Nebraska’s Potomac Books imprint. The book was the recipient of the Nebraska Book Award in biographical nonfiction for 2022.
William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) was an explorer, photographer, and artist. He is also one of the most often overlooked figures of the American West. His larger claim to fame involves his repeated forays into the western lands of nineteenth-century America as a photographer.
“Jackson accumulated this amazing list of “firsts” as a photographer during the 1870s and 1880s,” explains McNeese. “He not only took the first photographs of the lands that later became Yellowstone National Park, he also took the first photos of additional western locales, such as the Tetons, Mount of the Holy Cross, Garden of the Gods, Royal Gorge, most of the “Fourteener” mountains in Colorado, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and a host of additional Anasazi Indian sites.”
To accomplish this feat, he hauled 400 pounds of equipment including wet plate cameras, lenses, tripods, chemicals, and a portable canvas darkroom on a mule across some of the West’s most treacherous terrain.
“Think of the millions of photographs taken each season in Yellowstone National Park by just regular folks who simply whip out their cell phones and snap away,” observes McNeese, “all from the safety of designated visitor sites and sidewalks.”
For Jackson, taking pictures of the wonders of Yellowstone and other Western subjects was often a dangerous and even death-defying task.
“Then you add the elements of having to first prepare his glass plates with chemicals, load a big boxy camera, retrieve the plate and process the negative immediately in his darkroom, sometimes along a cliffside, all in real-time before the chemicals dried. His efforts to get such shots were difficult, even herculean.”
McNeese researched his book in the summer of 2021, including a visit to Yellowstone and the Tetons, plus combing archives in the Colorado Historical Society in Denver to view Jackson’s papers. He also accessed additional materials from research facilities in Wyoming and Nebraska, plus the New York City Public Library and the Library of Congress.
“Jackson led such a lengthy and extraordinary life,” notes McNeese. “He lived to the ripe old age of 99 and remained active until his death. But his most crucial contribution to the history of the West was his involvement in encouraging Congress to declare the Yellowstone Plateau as the nation’s first national park.”
“His photographs of Yellowstone, taken in the summer of 1871, provided irrefutable proof of its exotic wonders, including the mud pots, waterfalls, and especially the geysers,” says McNeese. “By 1872, Yellowstone was a place the government intended to protect for posterity.”
The YU professor was drawn to a study of Jackson since no lengthy biography had been published on the photographer in more than thirty years.
“I was only vaguely aware of Jackson. He’s such an unknown figure to many Americans,” says McNeese. “While others opened the frontier with the axe and the rifle, Jackson did so with his collection of cameras. He dispelled the geological myths through a lens no one could deny or match. Prior to Jackson’s widely circulated photographs, the American Far West was little understood and unmapped—mysterious lands that required a camera and a cameraman to reveal their secrets.”
Professor McNeese has taught at York University since 1992 and has published many additional books. He is slated to retire from the university at the end of the fall semester. But he says he will keep writing in his retirement.
The biography of Jackson is available through bookstores, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other venues, including the Rowman & Littlefield website.