Romantic Era: Photography is Born

The Romantic Era was the parent of a new art form: photography. Although photographic methods were crude in the 1800s and the resulting images lacked sharp detail and color, I believe that photography back then was a form of art. In this blog, I plan to show you two photographs from the 1800s and discuss artistic elements present in them.

The Devil’s Slide, Utah. By Carleton Watkins (c. 1874).

Our first photograph comes from Carleton Watkins. Watkins was one of the most notable Western photographers of his time. He mastered photography using what was available to him at the time. Our smartphone-toting society today tends to take photography for granted. What may not be obvious is that early photographs, such as Watkins’, represented a lot of work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website sets one of Watkins’ other photographs in context: “Watkins produced this work wrangling a dozen or more mules carrying roughly two thousand pounds of equipment, including his oversize camera, large glass plates, and flammable chemicals” (“Carleton Watkins: Yosemite”). Clearly, photography in the rugged region of the western United States was complicated by the primitive state of equipment. Nonetheless, this did not deter photographers such as Watkins from taking on the challenge.

This photograph caught my eye. The exotic geological formation (the “slide”) draws a lot of interest to the scene. Various artistic qualities are evident in this photo. There is a variety of textures that add interest: speckled rock, scrubby trees, and sweeping smoke. The rock slide adds to an appealing element to the composition. As the viewer glances at the picture, his or her attention “slides” down to the train. The picture also observes the famous rule of thirds. The primary subject—the train—occupies one of the thirds of the picture (the bottom third). The rock slide starts the top-left intersection of the thirds divisions and ends at the bottom right intersection. Overall, the photo has a pleasing composition.

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. By William Henry Jackson (1883).

As a painter, William Henry Jackson had an artistic eye. It is evident in this photograph. The rugged cliff dominates the picture. Although I do not know who the men are in the picture, Jackson sometimes worked with the famous painter Thomas Moran, including him in photographs to add a sense of scale (Peale 8). In this photograph, the men definitely help convey the overwhelming enormity of the landscape. By placing the men in the notch in the mountain’s face, Jackson drew attention to them.

Though washed out, a canyon and mountain are visible in the background. It certainly must have been a majestic view, but the technology back then clearly had difficulty capturing the wide range of dynamics. The image shows artistic features, but the primitive equipment kept it from being as stunning as it could have been.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. By Thomas Moran (1872).

Jackson’s friend, Thomas Moran, is well-known for his beautiful Western paintings. His paintings, especially the one shown above, depict stunning landscapes. This particular painting contains so many things that the photography of that era lacked. It has vivid colors. The stunning lighting beautifully accentuates the landscape. There is no problem with important details being lost in the highlights or shadows. Everything is spectacularly balanced. Even though we have vastly improved photographic equipment today, we still have to wait for the weather to create these gorgeous panoramas. In the 1800s, challenges with both weather and primitive equipment impaired photography. As shown in this blog, however, several skilled photographers of the 1800s produced works that deserve credit as art. Photography was a developing art form, and these works (among others) showed the potential it held.

Works Cited

“Carleton Watkins: Yosemite.” The Met. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 09 Mar. 2016. <>.

Peale, Albert, and Marlene Merrill. Seeing Yellowstone in 1871: Earliest Descriptions & Images From the Field. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2005. Google Books. Web. 9 Mar. 2016. <>.


6 thoughts on “Romantic Era: Photography is Born

  1. I really enjoyed reading your blog! I agree with you that society does not realize the importance and artistic value that photography holds. I plan on getting a nice camera to take pictures while camping this summer. I love the painting of the Grand Canyon, but the photos from the 1800’s are just amazing! Even though there is no color, my imagination just runs wild on how things might have been on that train in the first picture.


  2. It’s amazing how paint, rather than photography, can change the appearance expressed by the artist. The photography, though beautiful in their own way, does not stand a chance against the stunning details depicted in The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone painted by Thomas Moran. You mentioning the artists reasoning behind the positioning of the people in The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River photograph is superb. It makes me look at the photograph in a more attentive way.


  3. I really enjoyed your position on photography. However could you look at an identical picture from today and tell me that there is more value in it because the range of dynamics is better? I feel that there is a rawness that is often lost in photos due to editing to enhance aesthetics. We come from the era of perfection, where we expect everything to be perfect, and if it is not, we will enhance it, make it better. I admire the untouched quality of old photography, it reminds me that at one point you didn’t have to have the perfect subject in the right lighting, in the right pose for it to be considered art.


  4. I couldn’t agree more that photography, back then, was art. It is amazing how far technology has come and still continues to grow. I really enjoyed your second photo listed by William Henry Jackson. The struggle was hard when it came to capturing a large range. Jackson actually produced over 900 photos, as he was a member and photographer for the Worlds Transportation Commission. The photos are part of a collection in the Library of Congress. He was also a painter in in his youth years, which I find to be beneficial to his photography career. It allows him to paint an image in his head and then turn around capture it in a photo. He was a very talented man, his mother too was a painter and he continued to grow with the changes of artistic ability.



  5. Great post. I agree with you that early photography was definitely a form of art and it is amazing what these early photographers were able to accomplish with such a finicky art form. I cannot believe how motivated these photographers were. For example, like you wrote, Watkins lugged 2,000 pounds of equipment around with him just to take a picture. I almost feel that these photographers deserve more credit than their modern counterparts as they had to put so much more time and effort into creating their masterpieces. My dad is a professional photographer and I know how annoying it is carrying around his 30 pound pack of lenses and camera bodies, but when this is compared to around a ton of equipment, it is incredible that there were even photographers willing to take these pictures. Overall, I greatly admire these early photographers and their works as they show true determination and insurmountable devotion to their art form.


  6. I also agreed that early photography was an art form, but the reason why I stated it was an art form in my blog was for the reason that it captured things in everyday life that people often saw. The photos included your blog captured geologic beauty, and I can appreciate that. To have the dedication to haul so much equipment to an area like that takes a lot. I can’t help but look at the composition of the photographs. In the first one, the subject is placed in the middle of the photo, and although aesthetically pleasing, it doesn’t seem as awe-inspiring as the second one where the subject isn’t directly in the middle. Since photography was early, the “rules” of photography hadn’t been common knowledge, but it’s interesting how these rules really affect the outcome of the photo.


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