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Geology of National Parks, 3D and Photographic Tours

Historic Stereo Photography

And Photographers of the 2nd Powell Expedition (1871-1872)

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In May of 1871, Major John Wesley Powell, was looking to hire help for his upcoming Second Expedition through the Grand Canyon. With better-designed boats and an able crew, the second voyage was intended for scientific investigation, topographic mapping, and as a photographic expedition rather than an adventure like Powell's first trip down the canyon in 1869.

With a recommendation, Major Powell hired E. O. Beaman as a photographer for the expedition. Also in a chance meeting in Salt Lake City, Powell recruited a young army major, John (Jack) K. Hillers to serve as a boatman; he was the youngest and perhaps strongest member of the Second Expedition. Although Hillers served primarily as an oarsman, he became interested in photography by assisting Beaman. Photographic methods were still fairly primitive; large pictures still required large negatives, and hence, a large camera. In addition, the existing colodium wet-plate method of taking and developing photographs in the field required a large amount of supplies, particularly the heavy, fragile glass plates used for the photo negatives. Beaman brought nearly 1,000 pounds of photographic equipment and supplies on the voyage. Beaman used an emerging photographic technique, stereoscopic photography -- two images taken in parallel a short distance apart that when viewed though an optical stereograph produce a three-dimensional image.

Major Powell had hoped that his cousin, Clem Powell, would learn the photographic techniques, but the expedition party quickly recognized that Clem generally despised the photographic work and didn't show either the interest, patience, or skills necessary to do quality photography. Clem complained bitterly about having to carry the equipment and his relation with Beaman soured early in the expedition. For the rest of 1871, Jack Hillers volunteered as Beaman's assistant, and in contrast to Clem Powell, Hillers was eager to learn.

In January of 1872, Powell fired Beaman after a disagreement. Powell then hired another photographer from Salt Lake City, James Fennemore. However, other members of Powell's party noted that Hillers, being both the youngest and strongest member of the expedition, was willing to climb with the camera equipment and he also had a eye for capturing images that surpassed Fenneman's skill in nature photography. Fennemore was not prepared for the rigorous lifestyle in the field and by mid summer he had became too sick to continue on the expedition. However, before he left he had trained Hillers to complete the photography of the Expedition. Powell put Hillers in charge of completing the photographic aspects of remainder of the voyage, and beyond. Through the years, the two men developed a trusting professional and personal relationship that would last through the extent of their careers with the U.S. Geological Survey. Starting in 1872, Powell directed Hillers to focus on photographing the life and cultural aspects of American Indian tribes in the Southwest. Hiller's photographic skills, his travels through the west, and perhaps his association with the government, made him one of the most widely recognized and celebrated photographers of the late 19th century.

J. K. Hillers at work as photographer on the Aquarius Plateau in July 1875, Utah.

J. K. Hillers at work as photographer on the Aquarius Plateau in July 1875. Utah.
USGS Earth Science Photographic Archive digital file:hjk00809

The caption (above) suggests the picture was taken in 1875, possibly by "Prof" Thompson or J. K. Gilbert during an expedition to retrace the route of the 1872 journey to the mouth of the Dirty Devil River. Donald Rolster (2001) suggests the picture may have been taken by James Fennemore in the spring of 1872 during the Thompson Expedition.

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Stereographic Photography

Stereoscopic photography (stereographs) immerged early in the development of photography in the 1850s. It was used to capture battle scenes of the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). Stereographic photography of Yosemite Valley by Charles L. Weed, Edward Muybridge, and Carleton E. Watkins received wide distribution in the 1860s. All of the photographers of the Great Surveys made stereographs, particularly W. H. Jackson (whose income depended on it). T. H. O'Sullivan made some stereographs while working for Clarence King, and O'Sullivan and William Bell together produced about 700 stereographs for the Wheeler Survey between 1871 and 1875. For the Powell Survey, E. O. Beaman, James Fennemore, and Jack Hillers produced nearly 1,400 stereographs of which 650 were sold commercially in sets or distributed as "gifts" to congressmen and other individuals of influence. Powell and Hillers also used the sale of stereographs to help support themselves.

After the Civil War, stereoscopes and stereo photography became increasingly popular, particularly in the period between 1880s through the early 20th century when world travel became increasingly possible via ship and railroad. Photographers traveled throughout the West, Europe, and the Middle East collecting thumbs in stereo pairs to sell to the public. Even the battle drama and disaster of WWI was photographed in stereo. Interest in stereo photography generally diminished with the advent of radio and moving pictures, but stereographic military and mapping applications continued to grow.

Many of the original Powell Survey photographs by Beaman, Fennemore, and Hillers of the 1871-2 voyage, including stereoscopic pairs, are available via the USGS Library's Earth Science Photographic Archive website: Emerging digital technologies have made the making of stereo imaging possible for viewing on computer flat screens, via the Internet, and accessible via digital printing. This website contains most of the Powell Survey stereographic images converted to 3D anaglyphic format (viewing requires red-and-cyan 3D viewing glasses). Below are two stereographic photographs that Jack Hillers took later in his career.

Captains of the Canyon.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Captains of the Canyon.
USGS Earth Science Photographic Archive digital files: hjk0088a and hjk0089a

Jack Hillers took this stereo photograph during one of his trips to Canyon de Chelly in either 1879 or 1881.

Pack train in San Francisco Mountain region Pack train in San Francisco Mountain region. Shows character of the mountains on high plateau regions of the Colorado River. Arizona. 1885.
USGS Earth Science Photographic Archive digital files:hjk00830 and hjk0830a

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