William Jackson is born in Keeseville, New York. His powerful photographs of Yellowstone helped make it the first national park.
Jackson received no formal training in photography. As a young man, he began experimenting with simple cameras, and he gradually mastered the arcane skills needed to capture images on chemically prepared glass plates. In 1866, Jackson joined a wagon train and traveled west to California, lugging along his heavy camera equipment. The awesome size and ruggedness of the western landscape sparked his imagination, and he began to focus his efforts on what would later be termed “nature photography.”
In 1871, Jackson’s ability to produce excellent images while working in primitive wilderness conditions attracted the attention of the geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Hayden convinced Jackson to join his government-sponsored expedition into the still relatively unknown wilds of the Yellowstone region in the northern Rocky Mountains. Earlier explorers of the area had returned with tales of towering geysers, vast canyons, and bubbling mud pots, but their stories and drawings of these natural wonders failed adequately to convey the beauty of Yellowstone. Hayden hoped Jackson could capture the miracles of Yellowstone on his photographic plates, so millions could enjoy the wonders seen by only a few.
During 1871 to 1872, Jackson produced hundreds of brilliant photographs of Yellowstone while traveling with the Hayden expedition. For the first time, the American public saw accurate images of the area rather than paintings or drawings. The photographs offered visual proof that Yellowstone really was home to many awesome natural wonders. Thanks in no small part to Jackson’s photos, U.S. congressmen decided the Yellowstone region should be preserved in its natural state. On March 1, 1872, Congress established 1,221,773 acres of the Yellowstone area as the world’s first national park.
After his work at Yellowstone, Jackson became one of the pioneering photographers of the American West. The magazine Harper’s Weekly commissioned him to make a popular series of photographic reports on many sections of the West. Though he was also a successful painter, his photographs were far more influential in establishing the American visual understanding of the West.