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Nineteenth Century Evidence, Survey, and Science Photography

From 1839, when photography arrived in the United States, the enormous production, both official and private, of photographs of architecture, historic sites, natural resources, and industrial expansion, was fueled by a passion and need for documentation. In America, the nineteenth century was a great period of taking stock, of retrospection and recovery as well as expansion, and photography was considered the truest agent for listing, knowing, and possessing. The use of photography as a tool to aid in classifying things and people, from indigenous peoples to images of immigrants and child laborers, was widespread. In short, it was considered a record, for good or ill, of progress.

At the end of the Civil War, many photographers joined surveyors assessing the potential for Western expansion. Best known are surveys led by Clarence King (U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel), Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories of the United States), and George M. Wheeler (U.S. Geological Surveys West of the 100th Meridian). The resulting expeditionary archives—in most cases a collaboration between photographer and survey team—were a comprehensive way to explore, catalogue, order, and then publish the mass of information about the landscape, information that was geological and geographical as well as sociological, historic, economic, metaphysical, spiritual, and philosophical.