Sun Pictures: Geology, Photography and the Rocky Mountains

Published by Julius Bien, New York, in 1870, F.V Hayden’s Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery, with a description of the Geographical and Geological Features, and Some Account of the Resources of the Great West is a large and weighty book. The copy now housed in UCD Special Collections was once part of the Royal College of Science for Ireland Library: it is stamped, and we can surmise from its presence in the 1872 catalogue that it came into the Dublin collection relatively soon after its publication in New York.

This copy shows signs of being well-used: although the green Morocco binding has retained its luxurious colour, it is liberally scuffed at the corners and edges, hinting at the hands of staff and students past who have taken it down off the shelf. With rich gilt edges along with marbled paste downs and endpapers, readers can see and feel that little expense was spared making this beautiful publication. This becomes even more apparent when we open the book to find thirty albumen prints (one placed opposite the title page, and the others gathered after the main text) of the Rocky Mountain landscape.

While the key purpose of Hayden’s volume was to explore the geography and geology of the Rocky Mountain region of North America, from the opening sentences of the introduction he tells us that for

several years past, during various expeditions to the territories west of the Mississippi River, I have earnestly desired to present to the world some of the remarkable scenery of the Rocky Mountain region, through the medium of photography, as the nearest approach to a truthful delineation of nature.[1]

Hayden, who at the time of writing was Professor of Mineralogy and Geology at the University of Pennsylvania, did not have to look far to find a body of photographic work that he could draw on for this task. In 1868 and 1869, photographer Andrew Joseph Russell (1829 – 1902) had been employed by the Union Pacific Railroad to capture the construction of the railway line that ran through the mountainous region, creating the first transcontinental railroad in North America. During his time on the project, Russell took over two hundred wet plate collodion negatives and six hundred stereoscope views, working with four assistants to transport their equipment.[2] These images were widely circulated through glass lantern shows, stereoscope cards, and through handsomely produced volumes, such as Sun Pictures.

The presence of Russell’s photographs in Hayden’s volume transforms this scientific text into something quite different: through it, we can learn not only about the development of photographic processes in the second half of the nineteenth century, but also find connections to industrial history and the history of the Irish diaspora and other migrant groups in America. For example, if we start with the book’s title, what was a ‘sun picture’?

To create his photographs, Russell used the wet plate collodion process, using large format glass plates exposed to sunlight to create the image. If we turn to another book for the College of Science Library, in his Manual of Photography (published in 1854) Robert Hunt notes that for the photographer, the

‘sun-beam is our pencil, and certain delicate chemical preparations form our drawing-board.’[3]

The collodion process involves several steps beginning with coating the plate in collodion, followed by silver nitrate. This is then placed in the camera and exposed, before being fixed and developed as a negative, before being used to create a print.

Photographers using this process, including Russell, must act quickly using this process because of the chemical involved: in fact, if we look closely at some of the prints included in Sun Pictures we can see Russell’s mobile dark room, pulled by a horse and with a make-shift darkroom on a cart.

Sunlight also played an important role in creating the albumen print. These prints became popular because they produced a rich, sharp image, and were made by coating paper with albumen (egg white) and silver nitrate, which made the sheet both smooth, glossy, and sensitive to light. The prepared paper was placed in a frame with the negative and exposed to light to create an image. This video from the Getty Museum shows all the steps of the process that Russell would have used to create these photographs.

Moving to the wider history of the railroad’s construction and its connection to the Irish diaspora, swathes of the tracks were built and laid by Irish labourers, later joined by many Chinese and African American workers. As Shawn Michelle Smith highlights, there is little sign of the ethnic and racial diversity in the Russell’s photographs.[4] Looking at the selection of images in Sun Pictures, however, it is hard not to think of the lives of the men working on the railway’s construction, or about how far they had travelled to be there. There is, of course, another side to this story that is absent from either Hayden’s account or Russell’s photography: that is, the displacement of Native Americans, the use of their lands for capitalist expansion. The extractive economy of the region is also hinted at in the final photograph of the volume which shows ‘hydraulic gold mining’ in action.

When it entered the Library at the Royal College of Science for Ireland, Sun Pictures would have shown its readers a landscape that was probably wholly unfamiliar, the rock and mountain formations being so different to the landscape and geography of Britain and Ireland. Back then it might have been used to teach about this difference, to show the development of railways and industries, and perhaps to prepare students for the work they would embark on at the close of their education. Today, as I hope has been shown here, a volume like Sun Pictures is not only of interest to the geologist and geographer, but also to the art and social historian, and to the environmentalist.

This post was written by Katy Milligan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections.

[1] F.V Hayden, Sun Pictures of Rocky Mountain Scenery, with a description of the Geographical and Geological Features, and Some Account of the Resources of the Great West (Julius Bien, 1870), vii.

[2] See Shawn Michelle Smith, At the Edge of Sight: Photography and the Unseen (Duke University Press, 2013),120-21.

[3] Robert Hunt, A Manual of Photography (Richard Griffin and Co., 1854), 1.

[4] Smith, At the Edge of Sight, 147.

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