Photographs of geological formations and Western landscapes

Collection History

This digital collection assembles many of the earliest and most important historical photographs representing the exploration of the American west. The majority of these holdings came to the Library in the 19th century as contemporary works illustrated with original photographic prints, or as print portfolios.


With the birth of photography in 1839, cameras began to accompany explorers everywhere, including the American west. However, technical shortcomings required skilled draughtsmen to translate the earliest camera images into conventional reproductive prints for publication or distribution. Not until the 1860s was the first practical paper photographs of the West achieved -- by rival camera artists Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916) and Charles L. Weed (1824-1903). Their mammoth albumen prints of California's Yosemite Valley were exhibited and published internationally, introducing the grandeur of the West, and its otherworldliness, with the truthful realism granted by photography.

Andrew Joseph Russell (1830-1902), an ex-Army photographer who had trained to be a painter, spent the 1868-1869 season with the Union Pacific Railroad as the route moved west from Nebraska toward Promontory Point in Utah. His smaller albumen prints were issued by the railroad in an elaborate presentation volume - the Library's copy came from the personal library of Samuel J. Tilden.

The United States Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian produced a similarly handsome published album of original albumen prints from expeditions in 1871-73 photographed by Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882), a Civil War photographer, and William Bell (1830-1910). Additional photographs from the Survey appeared in special atlases published to accompany official reports, acquired routinely by the Library as government documents.

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), also a self-taught practitioner, photographed for the Union Pacific Railroad, and joined the Hayden Survey of Yellowstone, which was made a national park in 1872. At the end of the decade Jackson opened a studio in Denver and at the end of the century he was a principal of the Detroit Publishing Company.

Related Resources

Early Western Landscape Photography

Fox, William L. View Finder: Mark Klett, Photography, and the Reinvention of Landscape. (c2001)

Jones, Peter C. The Changing Face of America. (c1991)

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Era of Exploration: The Rise of Landscape Photography in the American West, 1860-1885. [1975]

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present. (c1996)

Szarkowski, John. The Photographer and the American Landscape. (c1963)

Whitney Museum of American Art. Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West. (c1996)

William Henry Jackson and the Hayden Survey

Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. (1988).

Jackson, William Henry. Papers, 1862-1942: Online Finding Aid for the Collection in NYPL. (c1998) <>

_____ . Time Exposure: the Autobiography of William Henry Jackson. (1940, reprinted 1994).

Merrill, Marlene Deahl, ed. Yellowstone and the Great West: Journals, Letters, and Images from the 1871 Hayden Expedition. (c1999)

Newhall, Beaumont and Diana Edkins. William H. Jackson. (1974)

U.S. National Park Service. "William Henry Jackson: Frontier Photographer and Artist." (2001) <>

Waitley, Douglas. William Henry Jackson: Framing the Frontier. (1999, c1998)

Timothy O'sullivan, William Bell and the Wheeler Survey

Dawdy, Doris Ostrander. George Montague Wheeler: the Man and the Myth. (c1993)

Dingus, Rick. The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O'Sullivan. (c1982)

Horan, James D. Timothy O'Sullivan, America's Forgotten Photographer. (1966)

Snyder, Joel. American Frontiers: the Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1867-1874. (c1981)

U.S. Geological Survey Library. Special Collections. "Photographs." (2004) <>

A.J. Russell and the Union Pacific Railroad

Ames, Charles Edgar. Pioneering the Union Pacific; a Reappraisal of the Builders of the Railroad. (1969)

Best, Gerald M. Iron Horses to Promontory. (1969)

Fels, Thomas Weston. Destruction and Destiny: the Photographs of A.J. Russell; Directing American Energy in War and Peace, 1862-1869. (1987)

Klein, Maury. Union Pacific. v. 1. Birth of a railroad, 1862-1893. (c1989)

NYPL. Tracking the West: A.J. Russell Photographs of the Union Pacific Railroad. (1994)

Oakland Museum of California. "Andrew J. Russell Collection." (c1999) <>

Russell, A.J. "Photographic Reminiscences of the Late War" Anthony's Photographic Bulletin XIII (July 1882) p.212-213.

Union Pacific Railroad. "History and Photos." (c2006) <>

Carleton E. Watkins

Anderson, Dan. "Yosemite History: Carleton E. Watkins, Photographer." (c1997-2004) <>

J. Paul Getty Museums, Malibu and Städelschen Kunstinstitut Frankfurt am Main. Gustave Le Gray, Carleton E. Watkins: Pioniere der Landschaftsphotographie; pioneers of landscape photography. (c1993)

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. "Carleton E. Watkins: The Art of Perception." (c2004) <>

Nickel, Douglas R. Carleton Watkins: the Art of Perception. (1999)

Palmquist, Peter E. Carleton E. Watkins: Photographs, 1861-1874. (c1989)

Rule, Amy. Carleton Watkins: Selected Texts and Bibliography. (1993)

Charles L. Weed

Cleveland Museum of Art. "Charles Leander Weed." (c2004) <>

Collection Data

The United States Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian produced original photographic albumen prints from expeditions in 1871-73. These photographs by William Bell (1830-1910) present an early visual history of the exploration of the American west. 30 albumen prints on original letterpress mounts, about 275 x 203mm. Some numbered and titled in negative. At head of mounts: War Department, Explorations West of the 100th Meridian, Expedition of 1872, Lieut. Gen. G.M. Wheeler Com'dg. In lower left corner of mounts: W. Bell, Phot.
Bell, William, 1830-1910 (Photographer)
Wheeler, George M. (George Montague), 1842-1905 (Surveyor)
United States. War Department (Publisher)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1872
Place: Washington, D.C.
Publisher: War Dept.
Library locations
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection
Shelf locator: MFZ+++ (Bell) 81-825
Geological surveys -- United States
West (U.S.)
Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian (U.S.)
Physical Description
Extent: 30 leaves : all ill. ; 61 cm
Extent: 30 prints ; 28.5 x 28.5 cm or smaller
Albumen prints
Type of Resource
Still image
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b10700215
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 0d7806c0-c6c1-012f-ea39-58d385a7bc34
Show filters Hide filters
30 results found