Federal Contracting in Nebraska:
Digitizing the Work of William Henry Jackson
Our assignment from the National Park Services: digitally archive the paintings and sketches of William Henry Jackson.
William Henry Jackson’s images of Yellowstone, the Colorado Rockies, the native cultures of the Southwest and of the great geological survey teams of the period make up the largest and most significant body of American landscape photographs sent down to us through history.
We were hired by the Department of the Interior to digitize hundreds of Jackson’s works. I set up in the place where his collection is held, the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in far western Nebraska. Over one week, I digitized the extensive collection of oil and watercolor paintings, albumin stereoviews, sketches, maps, lithographic prints, pencil drawings, certificates and ink washes.
We spend whatever time it takes to fully research a project before beginning it, and for me that meant getting ahold of an out-of-print copy of “The Pioneer Photographer”, Bob Blair’s expanded edition of Jackson’s diaries and letters. One hundred sixty of Jackson’s images illustrate a narrative of the expanding American West of the 1860s and 70s, and a still-young American nation. It was an important asset in preparing for the digitizing process.
By the time I got to Nebraska, I was a fan. I’d read the colorful stories attached to the creation of the paintings. And so it was slightly disorienting to spend so much time with the paintings themselves. Here was the sketch of the mule who spied on the artist as he painted. Here was the great oil painting of the Holy Cross, a rock formation in the mountains (Jackson was disappointed with his foreground work, and so repainted over it). Here were the black-and-white photographs of mountains and canyons, never previously photographed but taken at such risk and difficulty for the surveying team.
A highlight of this trip, for me, was exploring the land around the two national monuments, Scotts Bluff and Agate Fossil Beds. Because it’s possible today to explore the exact locations where Jackson had created his images, I wandered the Scotts Bluff area, trying to match up the painted images with the landscape as it appears today.
Always one of the main attractions: hiking after the work is done.
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