11 incredible wilderness photographs from the 1800s

Early American wilderness photographers were snapping gorgeous vignettes of mountain peaks and sunrises before Instagram's "1977" filter was even a thing. But, aside from their timeless appeal, the true value of these nineteenth-century photographs is derived from their role in the American conservation movement.

Since the 1860s, photography has played an important but little-known part in the field of nature conservation. A handful of pioneering artists intentionally used their photographs to promote conservation and instill in viewers a tangible connection to America's last wild places. Embedded in these images is a deep empathy for the natural world and the power to bring about positive change.

"A photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed." - Ansel Adams

Perhaps the most renowned conservation photographers are Ansel Adams (1902-1984), Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) and William Henry Jackson (1843-1942). All three men formed early connections with nature through personal experiences in wilderness which guided their careers and personal values.

For Carleton Watkins, travels to California's Yosemite Valley inspired him to capture the area's unique beauty in a series of experimental photographs and stereoviews. These images would later influence Congress' decision to pass the Yosemite Grant that protected Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias as the first territory ever set aside by Congress for public use and preservation.

Ansel Adams also developed an appreciation for wilderness through Yosemite. Considered by many the father of American photography, Adams became an ardent conservationist and served as a council member of The Wilderness Society. Late in his life, Adams testified before Congress to plead the case for preserving America's imperiled wild places.  

"A photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed," said Adams. 

A true conservationist, Adams bequeathed 75 signed, original images to The Wilderness Society before his death in 1984. We received subsequent gifts, bringing our collection to 88 landscape photographs.

Today, the collection of original Ansel Adams photographs is now housed in an award-winning gallery on the first floor of The Wilderness Society’s national headquarters building in northwest Washington, D.C. We welcome visitors on weekdays to experience the majesty and wonder of Ansel Adams’ incredible and iconic images.

The Wilderness Society is committed to protecting the wild places that Adams and his peers chronicled throughout their careers. Through our conservation efforts, we aim to preserve America’s rich natural legacy, so future generations will have more than just photographs by which to remember them. 

Check out these stunning nineteenth-century nature photographs recently made available to the digital world thanks to the Getty's new Open Content Program:

 

Watkins, Carleton. (1878) "Agassiz" Column, Yosemite. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1866) First View of the Valley. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1880s). Big Tree Felton (Redwood), Santa Cruz. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1867) Cape Horn, Columbia River, Oregon. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Jackson, William Henry. (1883) Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1884-1885) Minerva Terraces, Mammoth Hot Springs National Park. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1861) Tutucanula - El Capitan 3600 ft. Yo Semite. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Jackson, William Henry. (1899) Marshall Pass, Colorado. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Jackson, William Henry. (1870) Old Faithful. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1873-1874) The Devil's Slide, Utah. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

Watkins, Carleton. (1880) The Domes from Moran Point. Los Angeles, CA: The Getty.

See also:

Ansel Adams and camera. Photo: J. Malcolm Greany (1950)