First photos of the Bells
August 27, 2010
You may be planning an excursion to capture the perfect fall-color Maroon Bells photograph. Aspen’s photogenic peaks grace the pages of books from Ansel Adams’ collections to David Muench’s collaboration with Ann Zwinger. Who composed the best coffee-table pictorial is open to debate, but which photographer snapped the first photo of the Bells is not in doubt. That distinction belongs to William Henry Jackson, the best-known photographer of the developing West.
Young Jackson was drawn to the West in the 1860s, where he worked as a bullwhacker on wagon trains along the Oregon Trail. He recognized that the vast unsettled lands were changing quickly and that no one was documenting the discoveries of the West’s unique treasures. On his first excursions, he sketched all he witnessed. After training in the new art of photography, he applied his skills to capture the last stages of construction on the transcontinental railroad. Stereoscopic viewing had become the rage. An East Coast populace eagerly bought his stereoptic cards of train trestle construction, Indians, and Western scenery.
Jackson had met Ferdinand Hayden on the Oregon Trail. When Hayden passed Jackson’s studio in Omaha, he realized what the photographer could contribute to his planned survey of western territories. Those geological surveys itemized western resources and Hayden had found that written survey descriptions did not adequately depict scenes that few had viewed.
Jackson joined Hayden’s 1871 survey to explore the Yellowstone area. Jackson’s photographs of Yellowstone Falls and geysers contributed to the overall enthrallment of members of Congress when they saw Hayden’s report. Subsequently, they created our first National Park.
The success of that survey gained Hayden sufficient fame to win the contract to survey Colorado. Jackson was again pressed into service in 1873-1876 for that survey. During that excursion, he photographed the back side of the Maroon Bells. Jackson accompanied surveyors as they set triangulation points from the Elk Mountain peaks. He took a series of shots stretching from Snowmass to Castle Peak. He did not venture into the Maroon valley, as the survey encampment was on the east side of the Elk range.
Jackson was charged with exploring the Anasazi dwellings of southern Colorado and New Mexico. His survey party was the first to thoroughly explore and to photograph Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Hovenweep.
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After the survey Jackson entered a new phase of photography, opening a studio in Denver. From that base he traveled Colorado’s railroad routes, often in the service of the railroad companies, taking photos for their tourist promotions. It was during that period that Jackson took many of the sweeping views of 1890s Aspen. In the days before enlargements, photographers chose their negative size to fit the final print size. Jackson’s “20 by 24” glass plate negatives produced the most clear and detailed photos of Aspen’s boom days.
Colorado likes to claim Jackson, but during that same period he documented California along railroad routes. In the late 1890s, Jackson also traveled through India, Egypt and Mexico.
Jackson lived nearly 100 years, long enough to see the work of the next generation of western landscape photographers. In his later years he put down his camera in favor of sketching and painting his favorite scenes from his memory and photographs. He never returned to Aspen to photograph the Bells from Maroon Lake.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at email@example.com.