Even if you've never been to Yellowstone, you're likely more than familiar with what it (and its most iconic features) look like, thanks to the many stunning images of the park that bounce around. But, when Yellowstone was first discovered, photography was barely in its infancy and was coming into its own as it was starting to be explored. Imagine someone describing geysers like Old Faithful and multi-colored geothermal pools like Grand Prismatic and the travertine terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs without being able to show you a picture of it. You'd probably think they were exaggerating, if not flat out lying.
But, early explorers of Yellowstone were smart enough to bring along pioneering photographer William Henry Jackson on expeditions. Despite the fact that it was incredibly challenging to haul large cameras, fragile glass photographic plates, and a portable darkroom to develop images on the spot (not to mention the troubles they had getting the right angle on a shot with all of that gear), Jackson managed to capture Yellowstone's most famous features so that the rest of the country would be able to see the strange and bizarre geothermal wonderland for themselves. These images helped convince Congress (who had never been West) to declare Yellowstone the country's first National Park in 1872. Comparing Jackson's images to Yellowstone today, it's fascinating to see how developed Yellowstone has become... and how much better photography has gotten!
Jackson photographed the famous peaks of the Teton range while surveying the Yellowstone region. He was no stranger to traversing the mountains with his equipment... reportedly, he once lost a month's worth of work when a mule lost its footing while he was working in Colorado. Luckily, things went mostly smoothly during his trip to Yellowstone!
There are a few notable things about his images of Old Faithful. For starters, can you imagine a time when there wasn't a horde of eager tourists crowding around the geyser, awaiting the eruption with cameras in hand? Also, does anyone else get a panic attack seeing people standing so close to the geyser? The water that shoots out of there is like, over 200 degrees! People could get hurt!
Jackson was photographing Yellowstone for the U.S. government's geological survey of the area. He got the last-minute invite from geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden after Hayden saw Jackson's work photographing the Native Americans in the Omaha region where Jackson had his studio. The survey also had a painter along for the ride as well, so Hayden definitely recognized the value of capturing the unique landscapes to bring back East. This bay in Yellowstone lake is a nice, peaceful shot.
It is pretty wild to see how little the view of Yellowstone Falls has changed. Even today, this feels like an iconic view of the wild and free aura the west had, and it's no wonder that people travel from miles around to experience it.
Yellowstone wasn't the only famous landscape Jackson photographed. You can see his stunning images of Royal Gorge, Garden of the Gods, Mexico, Mesa Verde, Yosemite, and more. Despite the fact that he photographed the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I can't tell if he went to the real-life Grand Canyon.
I can totally see how pictures of the travertine terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs blew people's minds back then because, to be honest, pictures of it from today still trip me out. It's so otherworldly and odd... it looks like Mars!
Mesa Falls Scenic Byway, Ashton, ID, US
Photography is an incredible medium, especially when it first came along. Seeing how Jackson and others were able to actually affect change using their cameras is pretty awesome. Plus, the chance to see what Yellowstone looked like without tourists, roads, cars, buildings, and signs is, in my opinion, pretty sweet, too.