Nature versus Culture: American Landscape Photography in Washington

George Kendall Warren, From Trophy Point, West Point, Hudson River, c. 1867-1868, albumen print. Mount: 24.8 x 32.4 cm. Sheet: 17.6 x 22.2 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Robert Menschel and the Vital Projects Fund

When Diane Waggoner set out to curate an exhibition on 19th-century American landscape photography for the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., she didn’t expect to discover such a clear narrative among the works.

“One of the major themes that runs through the photography from this period is a constant balance between nature and culture,” Waggoner said in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Photographers working in the 19th century were interested in picturesque sites, but were also fascinated by the different ways in which landscapes were being altered and transformed.”

The exhibition, East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography, presents 175 photographs tracing the development of landscape in the eastern part of the United States, from the 1840s to the 1890s. From industrialization to tourism and the Civil War, these photographs commemorate a period of technological transition in the country, while also shining a light on the rise of environmentalism and the desire to protect natural wonders around the world. 

Seneca Ray Stoddard, Avalanche Lake, Adirondacks, c. 1888, albumen print, 37.6 x 47.6 cm. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

Arranged chronologically across six sections, the exhibition begins with daguerreotypes, including two photographs of Niagara Falls from the 1840s by Hugh Lee Pattinson. Representing an interest in nature and an appreciation of the picturesque, these early landscape photographs celebrate the beauty of the untouched.


As visitors move through the space, they are introduced to similar photographs of the White Mountains, Hudson River, and Adirondacks by Seneca Ray Stoddard, George Kendall Warren, and others. Although the photographs encouraged Americans to visit these sites, photographers of the period were strongly opposed to developing the land. “Seneca Ray Stoddard and Henry Hamilton Bennett, for example, promoted tourism, but were also involved in movements to protect the areas,” says Waggoner. “There was a mitigating impulse among them to preserve the natural environment.”

Thomas H. Johnson, Inclined Plane G, c. 1863–1865, albumen print. Unframed: 30.5 x 38.7 cm. Mount: 45.7 x 55.9 cm. Collection of Michael Mattis and Judith Hochberg

In addition to scenic sites, the exhibition features photographs captured in the midst of the Civil War, as well as landscapes increasingly challenged by technology and transport. “James F. Ryder was one of the first photographers hired by a railroad company to photograph their rail lines,” says Waggoner. “Thomas H. Johnson captured coal regions in northeastern Pennsylvania, while others were documenting the growth of urban areas — such as Thomas M. Easterly in St. Louis, and Jay Dearborn Edwards in New Orleans.” These photographers were busy framing the changing landscape, capturing the construction of infrastructure such as railroad bridges, and more.

George N. Barnard, Pass in the Raccoon Range, Whiteside, No. 1, c. 1863–1864, printed 1866, albumen silver print, 25.6 x 35.8 cm. NGC

The collection of photographs on view includes four works on loan from the National Gallery of Canada. Three of the selected images — from Alexander Gardner’s 1866 publication Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War — are albumen silver prints of military bridge crossings by photographers Timothy H. O’Sullivan and David B. Woodbury. The other is by George N. Barnard, included in his 1866 publication, Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign. “Gardner’s sketchbook is considered one of the most important publications of photographs produced on the subject of the American Civil War,” says Lori Pauli, Curator of the Photographs Collection at the National Gallery of Canada. “The four works on loan are part of a significant collection of Civil War photographs from the NGC, and they continue to provide a fascinating firsthand visual account of a tumultuous time in American history.”

Although primarily reflecting an interest in promoting natural beauty, as well as concerns regarding inevitable urban redevelopment — a concern that resonates to this day — the photographs in the exhibition also celebrate the unique identity of the eastern United States. “This show by no means represents every photographer who worked in the East during the 19th century,” says Waggoner. “I could have populated the exhibition five times over.”

Instead, as Waggoner points out, the selected works “highlight photographers who have often been overlooked and overshadowed by our interest in the West.” Ultimately, it is from these photographs that the 19th-century East, from its mountains to its altered landscape, is both celebrated and seen. 

East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth Century American Landscape Photography is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. until July 16, 2017. Visitors to the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian Photography Institute won’t want to miss Photography in Canada: 1960–2000, on view until September 17, 2017. Bringing together more than 100 works by 71 artists, this exhibition similarly explores themes of development and identity in photographs by Raymonde April, Edward Burtynsky, Lynne Cohen, and more.

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