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Photographing Yellowstone

Photography has always played an important role in Yellowstone’s history. To help prove that the natural oddities described by mountain men and explorers did indeed exist, Ferdinand Hayden hired William Henry Jackson to produce photographs of the scenery, waterfalls, canyons, and thermal features viewed by the Hayden Expedition of 1871. Jackson used two cameras, and a bulky, time-consuming method of photography known as the wet plate process. One camera measured 6-1/2 inches by 8-1/2 inches, and the other was 8 inches by 10 inches. Due to slow shutter speeds of 5 to 15 seconds, the camera needed to be held steady by a heavy tripod. Just prior to taking a photograph, Jackson would prepare a light-sensitive emulsion layer to coat a piece of glass the same size as the camera. After exposing the glass plate negative, Jackson would immediately develop the negative in his darkroom tent before the emulsion layer dried. The average time to make a single photograph was 45 minutes.

Jackson carried hundreds of pounds of fragile glass plates, chemicals and solutions, cameras and tripod on pack mules. He would frequently take his equipment to some very difficult and sometimes precarious locations to get just the view he wanted.

The photographs taken by Jackson in 1871 were instrumental in persuading Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world’s first national park in 1872. Frank J. Haynes was another important photographer in the early days of the park, first journeying here in 1881. Haynes recognized the unique beauty of Yellowstone and realized that this first look would lead to some significant changes in his own career and life. Haynes was the official photographer for Yellowstone National Park from 1884-1916. By 1897, Haynes had two photo studios in Yellowstone. The first was located in the Upper Geyser Basin, and the second at Mammoth Hot Springs. The Haynes studios sold black and white photographs, and hand-tinted postcards and stereocards to park visitors.

One of Haynes’ most important accomplishments was documenting the early development of Yellowstone Park to accommodate increasing
numbers of visitors. Haynes photographed park roads and bridges, stagecoaches, steamships on Yellowstone Lake, train stations in Gardiner and West Yellowstone, hotels, lodges, campgrounds, and visitors. Haynes also photographed the natural beauty of Yellowstone. Some of these photographs are of particular importance as they show thermal features displaying activity that differs from today.

Photography still plays an important role today in Yellowstone. Even though nearly every visitor today has a still or video camera, there remains the importance of recording today’s cultural, natural and historical features, documenting gradual changes, and events of significant importance such as the restoration of the wolf.

Reprinted from “The Ultimate Montana Atlas and Travel Encyclopedia”

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