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Nineteenth Century American Views

Interpreting the American landscape has been a central objective for photography since the invention of the medium. The problem of how to find meaning in an expanding New World landscape was solved in part by a photographic version of nature that simultaneously produced an informative document and a pleasing picture. The photographer, seen as both explorer and artist, held a special talent, aspiring to confront nature and control it.

By the 1870s, pictures of natural wonders such as waterfalls, giant trees, spouting geysers, balancing rocks, and breathtaking gorges formed a visual language of the American sublime. Often with an emphasis on grand scale and awesome vertiginous perspective, the view conveyed by the well-made outdoor photograph became an evocative memory of a once-in-a-life time journey or, for those unable to travel, substituted an image for the actual experience.

By the 1860s and 1870s, views of the American West were treated as a new form of evidence that integrated painterly and literary landscape ideals and traditions into the making of photographs. Views made by intrepid photographers hauling large view cameras and heavy equipment to newly accessible wilderness destinations such as California’s Yosemite Valley, Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park (after 1872), or Arizona’s Grand Canyon, served multiple audiences, from those desirous of picturesque views for their parlor walls to images which provided legal evidence in land disputes. The legacy of the natural view is evident in the work of twentieth century photographers, most significantly that of Ansel Adams.