Guest blog: The mysterious American Travel Album
By Krisztina Lackoi, on 10 August 2012
Guest blog by Erin Schuppert, University of Boston and Intern, UCL Art Museum
I began my five-week internship at UCL Art Museum in the beginning of July and I have been busy ever since. I have assisted with a photography project, been introduced to collections care, done copyright research and been in contact with copyright holders, made preparations for researchers and a class, taken inventory, and performed other daily tasks. Despite this long list of experience I’ve gained here at UCL, I still had time to do some of my own research. It all started with the last day of photography, when in the back of the room, Krisztina opened the small corner cabinet and pulled a rather large box from the bottom, placing it on the table and informing me that the museum knows very little about this object.
We slowly opened the lid of the custom-made box and inside was large, brown and green leather-bound book entitled “Travel Album.” I wasn’t too sure what to expect from the inside of the tome, but it looked old and almost forgotten, and so, being hopelessly nostalgic, it intrigued me. Krisztina opened it up to one of the middle pages and I saw before me two sepia-toned images of Yosemite. I had recently travelled to Yosemite National Park in Northern California, so I recognized the landmarks shown in the pictures. I carefully flipped through the next few pages and saw Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Glacier Point. Then, just a few more yellowing pages after that, I saw an image of Palace Hotel in San Francisco… I stayed there only two years ago! It did of course look a bit different in the photograph, which I have dated roughly back to the 1890s, than it did when I saw it in 2010, but as soon as I read the inscription in the album and recognized it as the same Palace Hotel in which I had rested my head, I was instantly inspired to find out more about this object.
The pictures from Yosemite and San Francisco have labels that read “Taber” and I figured that this would be a good place to begin my quest. So, I found out all I could about Isaiah West Taber, born in Massachusetts in 1830, who moved to California in 1864 to begin a career in photography, and finally died in 1912, just six years after the Earthquake of San Francisco destroyed his studio and ended that career. I found a few online databases, including those of University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and Yale University’s Beineke Library, containing digital images of his work, which also contained some biographical information on Taber. From this, I learned that Taber had taken many photographs of the American West himself, but he had also bought the negatives of one of the most celebrated landscape photographers at the time, Carleton E. Watkins. Watkins’s focus was mainly on…you guessed it…Yosemite. Now my head was spinning! These photographic prints could be copies of photographs taken by Taber or Watkins. But wait! Watkins bought the negatives of another photographer. Who took these photos?!
When I returned to the album and looked through every page, I found to my surprise the first half of the album did not contain a single photograph with the Taber label on it. Instead, they were all labelled “WHJ and Co.” and the first 120 out of the 269 pictures were of the views of the Rocky Mountains along the Colorado Midland Railroad Line and in Utah, the people and villages of New Mexico, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Not Yosemite or San Francisco…not even California! There was far more to this album than I had originally thought… So who was WHJ? William Henry Jackson was born in Keeseville, New York in 1843 and is most famous for his views of Yellowstone, some of which are also the Travel Album. He was the first photographer to capture the beauty of Yellowstone and according to the National Park Service’s website, his pictures helped convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in the world in 1872.
As far as the album itself goes, only about twenty percent of its content is ethnological and most of the rest is of a geological nature. The few city views do not have captions like some of the pictures of natural landscapes do, from which I have inferred that the compiler was probably less interested in these than the picture of, say, Yosemite Falls, for which he or she took the time to write a caption with the details of the height of each drop and how many drops there are. Therefore, it is most likely that despite the varied subject matter contained in this album, the main focus of its creator was nature and its majesty. The entirety of the album is labelled and inscribed in the same, neat handwriting and the only mistake made was a single unnumbered photograph. The compiler, whoever he or she may be, took a great deal of time and effort to produce this magnificent object. I only wish that I could give him or her credit by name and express my thanks for putting so many wonderful images together in one place. My search continues…