Eloquent Vistas: The Art of Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography from the George Eastman House Collection
The American land, expansive and spectacular, has been a central force in shaping American culture. From The Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper to the majestic landscapes of Ansel Adams, it has inspired the creativity of authors and artists and captured our collective imagination. This exhibition of nineteenth-century photographic landscapes displays this spirit. Now, as then, the beauty of these images is not simply the result of a photographer pointing his camera at a mountain range or waterfall. Landscape, as distinguished from land, is a mindful creation, a framing of the world—the visual equivalent of mapping, both geographically and conceptually, a natural ideal.
The photographers who labored to create these images were entrepreneurs and adventurers able to sustain months of travel, camping, and sometimes hostile interactions with native peoples. Their primary purpose was to document the land for their employers: government-sponsored geological and geographical surveys, railroad companies, and the tourist trade. Many, including Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Eadweard Muybridge, William Henry Jackson, John Moran, Carlton E. Watkins, William H. Rau, and William Bell, accomplished their commissions in a truly aesthetic way. Today, their images are appreciated for their artistic rendering as well as for their topographical depiction of known and unknown places.
Many images in this exhibition, which are from George Eastman House’s exceptional collection of over 3,500 prints and 6,500 stereographs of nineteenth-century American landscapes, have survived for nearly 150 years. Extraordinary details such as people in the distance and camping gear can be found. This is thanks to the fine resolution achieved by glass-plate negatives and albumen prints made by contact printing. More information about this process is given on other text panels in the exhibition.
David Wooters, archivist, and Jeanne Verhulst, associate curator of exhibitions at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York curated the exhibition. For its presentation at the Montclair Art Museum, organized by Gail Stavitsky and Twig Johnson, this exhibition has been augmented by photographic equipment of the era and works from the permanent collection, including photographs by William Henry Jackson, Frank A. Rinehart, Andrew Russell, and Frederic Vreeland. Paintings by Thomas Moran and George Inness evoke the common subjects and relationships between painters and photographers of the nineteenth century. Works by American Indian artists represent the presence of Native American peoples long before the explorations of the American West and other areas depicted in the photographs on view.
Eloquent Vistas is made possible with support from Exhibition Angels Rita and Bernard Berkowitz, Bobbie and Bob Constable, Bobbi Brown and Steven Plofker, Gregg Seibert, Adrian A. Shelby, Denise and Ira Wagner, and Margo and Frank Walter. This exhibition was organized by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. All Museum programs are made possible, in part, by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, a Partner Agency of the National Endowment for the Arts, and by funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and Museum members.