Autobiography of a lesser known local
For this installment, I’ve chosen to review what I deem an unappreciated classic, the autobiography of photographer William Henry Jackson.
Entitled “Time Exposure” and published in 1940, it tells the story of a most remarkable yet little known individual from New York’s North Country.
Born in 1843 in Keeseville, in Clinton County, Jackson moved with his family several times while he was still young. His father, a blacksmith and wagon maker, eventually bought a 200-acre farm near Peru. Not yet 20, William enlisted as a soldier in the Civil War; he served at the Battle of Gettysburg. This in itself might not be remarkable, but there weren’t many Gettysburg veterans who then lived long enough to hear about Pearl Harbor.
Jackson learned the art of photography and appeared to be settled with a firm in Burlington, Vermont, when his fiancee let him know their marriage was off. Unwilling or unable to face family and friends after that disappointment, he hopped a train for New York City, then headed west.
After a couple of years accompanying wagon trains and driving cattle and horses, he returned to photography, this time in Omaha. By chance, Ferdinand Hayden, leader for the United States Geological Survey, stopped at his studio. Consequently, in 1870, the Peru farm boy began eight years of service on government surveys of the American West.
That’s how he came to be the first person to capture images of fabled Yellowstone. In fact, was Jackson’s photos helped convince Congress to establish our country’s first national park. Further explorations followed as he visited Wyoming’s Tetons and traversed Colorado to Estes Park and the Gunnison River. Jackson also gets credited with being the first white American to see the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde.
In time, Denver became his home base, but he continued to indulge his wanderlust. Railroads commissioned him to provide pictures for marketing purposes. He created a three-dimensional panorama of the Geological Surveys for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, then took on a similar project for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. (Lest I forget, let me tell you now, he also attended the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.)
Following all this, he circled the world on a loosely organized junket, selling photographs to Harper’s Weekly in order to assure some income. Exotic destinations included Egypt, India and Japan; he was arrested for taking a photograph of a fort in Singapore. The journey ended with a trek by steamboat, rail, and horse-drawn sledge across Siberia, taking advantage of frozen rivers to cross in lieu of bridges.
New technology didn’t faze him. When the Detroit Publishing Company developed a revolutionary new color reproduction process, it hired Jackson in 1898 to travel the world and take photographs that could be used for the era’s new trendy creation, the postcard. In time, he became the firm’s chief executive. Being in Detroit also gave him opportunity to watch the birth of the auto industry; he bragged about learning to drive a Model T after he turned 60.
I suppose I could tell you that he entitled the next-to-last chapter of the autobiography “I Retire.” After his wife died in 1918, he relocated to Washington, D.C., where he indulged himself visiting the Smithsonian Museum and Library of Congress on a regular basis. But I should also note that the final chapter is named, “I Go To Work.”
Some of that work involved a commission in 1934 to paint four 30-by-60-foot murals for the newly constructed offices of the Department of the Interior. Carefully researched, these helped further memorialize the Geological Surveys of the 1870s. In addition he managed to complete about 50 additional paintings of western scenes.
During the late 1930s, Jackson made a few visits back to his childhood home in Clinton County. On one trip, he satisfied his long-held desire to find the exact spot of the family farm. In 1940 – at age 97 – he marched in New York City’s Memorial Day parade. That’s also the year in which he published this autobiography.
Not only did Jackson live a full and eventful life, but he writes about it in a very engaging manner. Passages are richly descriptive, his sense of humor comes through vividly, and he displays a remarkable memory for detail. Endearing sketches and historic photos help illustrate the text. On occasion, there’s a reference that wouldn’t pass today’s scrutiny on racial consciousness, but I’d argue such comments have to be put into context with the era.
His final sentence reads: “I have been one of the fortunate.” Anyone who reads this book will likely agree.