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Landscape Photographs: Shaping Our Impressions of the Earth

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The following is a guest post by Micah Messenheimer, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division (and a photographer himself).

In honor of Earth Day, we wanted to take a deeper look at some of the Library’s historic collections of landscape photographs.

When many people think of landscape photographs they think of wide-open spaces, empty of people. Yet, landscape photographs, by their nature, tell stories deeply tied to human interactions with the land. This is implied even in the origins of the word “landscape,” which at its root means the shape or condition of the earth. Each photograph documents a moment in time, one that now allows us to take a second look at a place and see how it has changed.

William Henry Jackson made this atmospheric photograph of the steam-shrouded terraces of Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs while part of an 1871 survey of the western territories directed by geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. This survey was one of many explorations in the post-Civil war years that integrated visual and scientific documentation to promote the region’s natural resources—and awe-inspiring beauty—in anticipation of the country’s westward expansion.

Scene showing steam rising from layered rock formation.
Mammoth Hot Springs from Scenery of the Yellowstone National Park. Photo by William Henry Jackson, 1871. //

While Jackson wasn’t the first to photograph in Yellowstone, his work found an audience including members of Congress who were debating the bill to preserve Yellowstone as the country’s first National Park. Jackson would go on to find great success in making photographs that allowed people to travel vicariously through his later work for a number of railroad lines and as a manager of the Detroit Publishing Company.

Like Jackson, photographer George Barker catered much of his photography to the demands of the tourist market after he first opened a studio at Niagara Falls in 1862. Between 1886 and 1890, he traveled to Florida, becoming one of the first photographers to thoroughly document the verdant landscapes of what was still a largely untouristed area. Among the nascent attractions in the state was Silver Springs, a rainfall-fed artesian pool teeming with aquatic life that was navigable via steamboat from the state’s eastern coast.

Steamboat approaching in tree-filled scene, with people waiting on shore
Steamboat approaching dock, view from the Morgan house, Silver Springs, Florida. Photo by George Barker, 1886. //

Barker’s evocation of mood in the photograph is striking, with deep shadows and filtered sunlight that places the figures in the foreground in silhouette and draws our eyes to the moss-draped trees and steam rising from the ship. This echoes the clouds that Barker printed into the skies of many of his photographs using darkroom techniques.

Across the country, Carleton Watkins was engaged by his friend, landowner and investor, James Ben Ali Haggin, and his business partner and brother-in-law, Lloyd Tevis, to make promotional photographs for their Kern County Land Company in 1888.

Scene of water, grasses, and canal strcutures in the middle ground
Kern Island canal head gate, 2 1/2 miles N.E. of Bakersfield, Kern County, Cal. Photo by Carleton E. Watkins, 1888. //

Watkins, well known for his 1860s mammoth-plate views of Yosemite, made nearly 700 pictures that were published in brochures and albums with the intention of luring Easterners to California’s Central Valley with depictions of its agricultural bounty, its seeming civility—and perhaps most importantly—assertions of a wealth of water. While the scenes Watkins made are often picturesque, they offer a first glimpse of the massive changes brought by irrigation that allow thirsty crops like cotton, pomegranates, and almond trees to grow in this arid terrain.

In the platinum print photographs that illustrated his book Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, British photographer Peter Henry Emerson similarly sought to document the agrarian landscapes of his country. He believed tourism by people increasingly seeking escape from industrializing London in pastoral East Anglia threatened the agricultural traditions of the region.

Men loading hay(?) into boat
Ricking the reed from Life and landscape on the Norfolk Broads. Photo by Peter Henry Emerson, 1886. //

Emerson was a fierce advocate for photography as an art form in its own right and theorized that the way focus could be controlled with the camera’s lens, leaving some areas sharp and others falling into blurriness, most closely mirrored “naturalistic” human vision.

Learn More:

  • Explore many terrains in this sampling of images from the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog indexed with the term “Landscape photographs.”
  • Curious to discover more images relevant to Earth Day? This Thesaurus for Graphic Materials term record for “Ecology” enables you to check for images indexed with that term and (when you scroll down) to see related terms such as “Conservation of natural resources,” and “Environmental policy,” that may yield additional images of interest. With each term, select “check for pictures with this index term” to see what turns up! (Results may include descriptions of images that are not digitized or that, because of rights considerations, do not expand to larger sizes outside Library of Congress buildings.)
  • Tour the 2013 exhibit, Down to Earth: Herblock and Photographers Observe the Environment.
  • Survey the Library of Congress Research Guides by Subject — guides can take you deeper into Library of Congress resources. You’ll find quite a few listed under Environment and Natural Resources and  Environmental Studies.

Comments (5)

  1. Where is Ansel Adams?

  2. Hi Walt,

    Thank you for your comment. Ansel Adams certainly had a tremendous influence on 20th century American landscape photography. In this post, I was looking at just a few of the 19th century photographers who preceded him. While the body of work Adams made of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans at Manzanar is among the Library of Congress’s most notable collections, we have a smaller body of his landscape photographs: about 30 prints, including his first portfolio, Parmelian Prints of the High Sierras. This work remains under copyright, so larger images are not viewable away from the Library, but you can see catalog records for these photographs using this search: // I also encourage you to explore other landscape photographs in the Library’s collections from the links in the “Learn More” section above.

    You might also be interested in the work that Ansel Adams made for the National Park Service held by the National Archives. Over 225 landscape photographs, all rights-free, can be found on their website:


  3. Thank you, Micah for this post. I especially liked the last image by Emerson – reminds me of the paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Thank you!

  4. Thank you, Micah, for this post. I especially liked the last image by Emerson – reminds me of the paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Thank you!

  5. Micah – Thank you for your reply, and for your fine expose, much enjoyed.

    I also thank you for the links to Adams’ photography.

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