Tahoe photography offers glimpse into past
Nevada Museum of Art Curator Ann M. Wolfe knows how important photography once was and still is to attracting people to the vast openness of the West. This is particularly true of the Lake Tahoe and Donner Pass areas, which began to see permanent settlers in the mid-19th century. It was not long thereafter that artists began to depict the beauty of the lake and the majesty of the Sierra Nevada, but so did photographers who used early forms of photography to capture images.
In this Q&A with Wolfe, we take a look at the importance of photography and its role in helping to define the West.
Q. There is an exhibit open right now at the museum called "Tahoe: A Visual History" that runs through Jan. 10, 2016. What photographers' images are on display as part of this exhibit that once helped to effectively communicate the beauty of the area?
A: Many of the most prominent American photographers working on the West Coast in the 19th century spent time in the Lake Tahoe/Donner region. Among them were Charles Leander Weed, Timothy O’Sullivan, Alfred Hart, Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge. Although their singular contributions are known, their collective contributions to the art history of this area are recognized in this exhibition for the first time. In the 20th century, photographers like Anne Brigman, Ansel Adams and Imogene Cunningham made work about the region that communicated its beauty.
Q. Daguerreotypes were common by the mid-19th century, but new processes soon came into place. Can you talk a bit about how photographers were creating images of the area during this time and whether many of these images remain?
A: There are no daguerreotypes in the exhibition -- that was a process typically reserved for portraits. Many daguerrotype photographers worked in nearby Virginia City and Reno during the Comstock era. Most of the photographs included in the exhibition are either stereocards or albumen prints. The larger prints would have been made with 18 x 22 inch box cameras, which utilized wet plate glass negatives developed in the field. There are also prints made using medium format cameras. Photographers would have transported their heavy equipment and portable darkrooms via wagon. Their images were developed in the field.
Q. What other exciting things can be seen as part of the exhibit?
A: There is a photograph of Charles Weed’s portable darkroom and Carleton Watkins’ photographic wagon on the shores of Lake Tahoe included in the book and exhibition.
Q. How were the images that these photographers captured shared back East and in other far away locations? Did their artwork travel alone or did they go with their pieces?
A: Although some photographers managed their own inventory of negatives and prints, for the most part, dealers helped to distribute photographs to tourists and faraway customers in the 19th century. At the same time, some photographs were commissioned by railroad executives to seek investors for their commercial enterprise.
Q. That's interesting. Please talk about this a little more.
A: One example of how dealers were involved would be to look to the firm of Lawrence & Houseworth. The first photographs of Lake Tahoe were published by the firm Lawrence & Houseworth. The company’s San Francisco owners, George S. Lawrence and Thomas Houseworth, were not photographers themselves, but by 1864 they had begun hiring field photographers to build their inventory of negatives. Between 1862 and 1864, Charles Leander Weed made two trips from San Francisco to Nevada Territory to photograph mining activities on the Comstock. He sold his negatives from these trips to Lawrence & Houseworth, but was never credited publicly for his work. Lawrence & Houseworth produced three unique, leather-bound sales albums featuring Weed’s photographs. They contain nearly 1,500 3-inch-by-3-inch prints, which 19th-century customers could have printed on demand.
Q. What were these implications of these images for drawing in and attracting people to the West. How did they play a role in defining frontier territories?
A: Photography came of age concurrent with the settlement of the American West and played a critical role in defining how the young nation’s newest frontier territories were visualized and imagined in the nineteenth century. The earliest images of Lake Tahoe and the nearby Sierra offer an important historical report of the region to be sure, but they were also made with the purpose of impressing and inspiring those who commissioned them. This is because most all of the region’s photographers up to the first quarter of the twentieth century were working to fulfill the demands and desires of the firms or companies who paid for their services and often underwrote their equipment and travel expenses. Whether photographing for a government survey, railroad company, or commercial firm, image makers constructed their views with an eye to pleasing their clients.