"Upper Yosemite Fall" (1892) by William Henry Jackson.
In 1867, the U.S. government funded four surveys — known as the “Four Great Surveys of the West” — to ultimately determine whether the area west of the Mississippi River (now Nebraska, Colorado, Arizona, California, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah and Idaho) could be exploited for natural resources and used for further settlement. The crew members of these surveys created topographical maps, evaluated cultivation viability, collected specimens, gathered ethnological data and documented the landscape through photography and painting.
William Henry Jackson (1843–1942) was the designated photographer on expeditions that for eight years explored the Yellowstone region and Rocky Mountains before they became famous national landmarks — or, indeed, before they even became national landmarks at all. The resulting photographs of trees, mountains and waterfalls showcased the broad, sweeping landscapes and the untouched nature and beauty of the American West.
Some of those photographs are among the curiosities and treasures within the archives of The Drexel Collection, the University’s flagship collection of art. Nat Fry ’18, who graduated this past spring as an art history major and photography minor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, struck gold when he found those photos while seeking inspiration for his senior project.
“When I came across the William Henry Jackson photos in The Drexel Collection, I was immediately intrigued and struck by their beauty,” said Fry. “The vast landscapes and sublime nature of Jackson’s photographs resonated with me — I wanted to know more about Jackson, his work and the story behind these particular images.”
That senior project is now a photography exhibit, Respectful Investigations, that recently opened in the Rincliffe Gallery. The name of the exhibit comes from a term coined by historian Peter Hales to describe how the photographers on these surveys documented the terrain while celebrating the natural beauty of the landscape.
All of the more than 30 photographs Fry chose for the exhibit are housed by The Drexel Collection, though it is unknown just how or why or when they became part of the art collection. Some of the photographs are marked with a “Drexel Institute Library” stamp, though they weren’t inventoried or accessioned. The donor could have been George Thomas, a Drexel trustee and art collector with investments in the railroad systems; he had donated a large number of photographs to the Drexel Library, though an 1899 annual report from the Drexel Registrar noted that Thomas’ gift included photographs of decorative arts, architecture and scenes of London and Paris. University founder Anthony J. Drexel, who funded and donated to the Drexel Institute of Art, Science and Industry’s museum, which later became The Drexel Collection, also could have donated the photos. After all, he had visited Yellowstone with his family in 1884 and his Drexel & Co. banking company financed several western railroad lines. Or, perhaps, the photos were acquired for study by students in the fledgling Department of Engineering or members of Drexel’s Camera Club, which was active by the early 1900s.
In this photograph of the Hayden Survey team, Jackson captured the rough-and-ready character of life on the frontier. Hayden is seated cross-legged on the right side of the table. A bearded Jackson sits at the head of table facing camera. Although Jackson composed this photograph, a crew member would have taken the photo. Photo: "In camp at Red Buttes" (1870) by William Henry Jackson.
Because so many of the photographs that Fry chose for Respectful Investigations come from Jackson’s time as the official photographer for the newly created United States Geological Survey, Fry said he felt it was necessary to include the history of the surveys to gain a full understanding of Jackson’s work. He researched the government-sponsored surveys and resulting photography through the collections and experts at the Drexel Archives, Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Through his investigating, Fry learned more about John Karl Hillers (1843–1925), the photographer of surveys of the Rocky Mountains and the Green River and Colorado River in Wyoming. Hillers’ photographs are also included in the show.
“Curating this show was a unique experience and gave me a thorough understanding of all the time and work that go into producing an exhibition,” he said. “Before curating this show, I had no idea about the amount of research, writing, reading, re-writing and creative thought that go into an exhibition — it was truly eye opening. Further, having the opportunity to dig through the Drexel archives, talk to experts in the field and handle original artwork every day was really amazing.”
The Academy of Natural Sciences housed a portfolio of Jackson’s survey photographs from 1869 and 1875. The massive book was donated (and signed) by geologist and University of Pennsylvania professor Ferdinand Hayden in 1876; Hayden, who had led the surveys Jackson accompanied him on for eight years, had thought it would be a “useful” document for research. The Academy loaned the book to The Drexel Collection for the exhibit.
Fry chose every photo, designed the exhibit’s layout and wrote all of the didactic panels for Respectful Investigations. He credits Lynn Clouser, director of The Drexel Collection, and Elizabeth Milroy, PhD, professor and director of the Department of Art & Art History in the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, for guiding and supporting him through the process. Fry, who is the son of Drexel President John Fry, will be working for Philadelphia Contemporary, a relatively new cultural institution specializing in visual and performing arts pop-up exhibits and performances. He also started his own woodworking company, Nat Fry Woodworking, that focuses on custom furniture and homeware.
Respectful Investigations will be on display in the Rincliffe Gallery from now until Nov. 21. The Rincliffe Gallery is located on the third floor in Drexel’s Main Building, located at 3141 Chestnut St, and the exhibit is free and open to the public.