Alongside pictorial landscape photography during the later part of the 19th Century ‘topographic’ or ‘proto-documentary’ approaches arose making use of the ability of the camera to record external phenomena.  This coincided with a rapid rise in industry, imperialism and means of communication, notably the print media and telegraphy. The photographic process was believed to eliminate any subjectivity on the part of the photographer. Photographs provided a means to communicate, with unparalleled realism, the far-flung corners of the country and the world.


Anxiety and nostalgia for the countryside as industrialisation progressed led to attempts to record the disappearing countryside and communities:

National Photographic Records Association established by Sir Benjamin Stone in 1897. Now held in the VandA

John Thomson (1837-1921)

Francis Frith (1822-98)


Photographers were commissioned by companies and entrepreneurs to document their industrial work as it encroached into the country, particularly more remote areas. 1868-1869 Andrew Joseph Russell was commissioned to document part of the Union Pacific Railroad. Carleton Watson produced technically accomplished and classically composed images for mining and lumber companies as well as the railroad company.

This representative scheme…presents the possibility of a double salvation – a return to unspoiled innocence and an opportunity to profit from the violation of innocence (Snyder discussing Watkins’ images  in Mitchell ed 2002 p189 q Alexander 2013 p54)

Timothy O’Sullivan’s (1840–82) images on the other hand ignores pictorial conventions and is bleaker and more challenging, representing the land as alien, inhospitable and unwelcoming.

Ian Jeffrey (1981, p.60 q Alexander 2013 p 54) makes an interesting comparison to European traditions:

“The surveyors chose high vantage points and uninterrupted lines of vision, and what they show appears at a distance, accessible to lines of sight alone. If their pictures have foregrounds they are marginal, or they begin at some distance away as though the camera registered its views at a remove from the earth. European landscapists, such as George Washington Wilson, Francis Bedford and William England, who were all active in these years, tended, by contrast, to mediate distant views by means of foreground detailing, seated figures and the like. American landscapes allow no such ease of access; they remain unapproachable, things seen across a gap, or even across a ravine as O’Sullivan’s picture of the Cañon de Chelle suggests… Perhaps in the face of such vast and unfamiliar places there was no alternative, no well-worn track or resting place which might make a viewer feel at home.”

2.1 : ‘Territorial Photography’

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