The vision of a territory to be explored is embodied in the concept of American Frontier: the limit of the western settlement areas that the settlers are going to constantly exceed. The expansion to the West, sometimes called the Wild West or the Old West, led to have a look on it imprinted with the idea of "Manifest Destiny". In the 19th century, the conquest of the West became more than a mission, but a destiny. This vision is supported by the common conception American’s had of themselves at that time: a virtuous people, with ideal institutions, whose values are to be disseminated throughout the world. The West and its landscapes therefore have a strong symbolism. It is the place where people have to go to achieve something.
Barbara NOVAK, specialist of landscape and United States, explains that it became gradually a moral and political issue. The American West is intimately linked to the landscape and to the notion of territories. Indeed, it is by their exploration and their conquest that the United States will be constituted, both geographically and politically, as we know them nowadays. In the landscape the whole American nation is projected. It designates all alone the many individual destinies, aggregated to each other in the idea of an American "us".
Since the expansion to the West, the approach of "Manifest Destiny" has evolved into a desire for preservation of this nature, in order to let the next generations can project themselves into it. In this approach, landscape photographs will play a major role in raising awareness of US policies. It is partly thanks to them that the American national parks are born. The special place of the West and the prowess of photographers, will make photography a key factor in the emergence of ecological awareness.
Carleton WATKINS (1829-1916) was born in 1829 in Oneonta, a small town in the state of New York. From a modest family, he left for San Francisco in 1851 with his friend Collis HUNTINGTON, in the hope of finding gold. Fate decided otherwise. HUNTINGTON became a successful marketer and invested in the railroad, while WATKINS became a famous landscape photographer. He began working as a photographer in 1854, for Robert VANCE’s Studio.
In July 1861, Carleton WATKINS went to Yosemite Park equipped with two cameras. The first one, a dual lens, allowed stereoscopic views, which allows for the perception of depth. The second was a large photographic chamber that can produce 45 x 53 cm (18 x 21 inch) photographic plates. He realised thirty plates that made his reputation as a landscaper. WATKINS made other images of Yosemite Park in 1864, for a geological mission. All of his work raised the American Congress awareness in favor of preserving the park. His iconic images participated in the advent of ecology.
William Henry JACKSON (1843-1942) left for the West in 1865, after the American Civil War. He began his career as a photographer shortly thereafter. He photographed the Indian tribes and, in 1869, worked for the Union Pacific Railroad to show the advance of the railway line to the west. Between 1870 and 1873, William Henry JACKSON is the photographer of the Hayden geographical mission. Like O’SULLIVAN, William Henry JACKSON transcribes all the power of nature in his photographs.
These photographs helped to unite the American people together, then divided by the Civil War. Thanks to them, the Yellowstone was classified as a national park by Congress in 1872. The work of JACKSON was widely diffused. He is part of the generation of expeditionary photographers to which O’SULLIVAN and Carleton WATKINS also belong. Emeritus painter, he also made paintings of the American West.
Ansel ADAMS (1902-1984) is certainly one of the most famous landscape artists in the world, and probably the most famous American photographer. An avid advocate of ecology, he joined Sierra Club at age 17, a group dedicated to protecting the environment. He was hired as the summer park warden of Yosemite Park, a place he will never stop photographing, making some of the most famous landscape photographs. His artworks made around Yosemite Park have contributed to the expansion of the park.
Ansel ADAMS has also brought a lot to photography. He invented the Zone System, a technique for managing the exposure of negatives. With Edward WESTON, he is also one of the f / 64 group founders. This group was created in 1932 in San Francisco, it promotes an artistic vision of photography and defends the principles of pure photography (Straight Photography), defined by: lack of editing, accurate reproduction of reality and great sharpness of the image.