Images with History

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by S.T. Paxton

Many of the images in the GEOLOGY WORKS collection are derived from B/W photographs shot by members of USGS field teams on assignment to complete scientific investigations.  Typically, the subject matter of most photographs was focused on rocks, geology, natural resources, and the character of the landscape.  However, some of the photographs highlight people, whether they be local residents or members of the field party.  The oldest images in the archive date from the early surveys of the American West.  Many of these early surveys provide us with snapshots of landscapes that today reside within the borders of our internationally recognized national  parks. Some of the field-team members were famous in their own right.  For instance, the collection includes photographs taken by former directors of the U.S. Geological Survey and some world renown USGS earth scientists.  I am intrigued by the prospect of peering deeply into a photograph that was composed by a famous or talented mind.  You can be certain that each field of view was designed by the author to capture information about the landscape that complemented the words in their scientific descriptions.  I always ask myself – “Do I see all the scientific content, and, in some cases, the beauty, that was intended by the photographer?”  Similar to today, you can be certain that words alone were inadequate to describe the enormous amount of information imbedded in each photograph.

Important scientific expeditions commonly had a designated photographer as part of the field team (sometimes professional – sometimes, not!).

I have selected images for the GEOLOGY WORKS collection based on subject matter and composition.  To prepare an image for the collection, I systematically inspect the details of each image and, using a standard digitial photo editor, eliminate dust spots, finger prints, and other physical imperfections inherited from the original document. 

Comparison of John Wesley Powell portrait before and after photo editing. Original image is available from the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library; photo credit is unavailable.

In some instances, individual images in the USGS archive are part of a series of overlapping images that were captured by the photographer for assembly into a panorama.  In the absence of a panoramic camera, the assembly of images into a panorama was a mechanically tedious and imperfect process.  I suspect that in most cases, only select panoramas were assembled upon return to the office from the field.  In contrast, with the help of modern digital technology, I have compiled some of these images into panoramas.  I suspect the GEOLOGY WORKS panoramas provide us with an integrated, first look at landscapes that have not been witnessed (as intended) since the pioneering scientist took the original shots.  Peering into a photograph taken by a famous or talented mind is intriguing.  Peering into a newly assembled panorama that has never existed before is akin to the feeling that one must have when opening a time capsule!

 Some of the individuals who contributed to the collection include:

  •  Charles Doolittle Walcott – Discoverer of the Burgess Shale, Third Director of the US Geological Survey (1894-1907) and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1907-1927)

    Grove Karl Gilbert, Father of Modern Geomorphology. Original image obtained from U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library; photo credit is unavailable.

  • Grove Carl Gilbert – Father of Modern Geomorphology.  G.K. Gilbert was referred to by some colleagues as “an “Engine for Research”.
  • William Henry Jackson – Photographer for the Hayden Expeditions of the West.
  • Timothy H. O’Sullivan – photographer for the King (1867-1869) and Wheeler Surveys of the West.
  • John K. Hillers – Photographer for the Powell Surveys of the West (1869-1879)
  • Francois Emile Matthes (1874-1948) – documented the natural history of the US southwest.
  • William Curran Mendenhall – Fifth Director of the US Geological Survey who performed pioneering work in Alaska.
  • Clarence E. Dutton – Author of the Tertiary History of Grand Canon District, 1882.
  • John Moran (brother of landscape artist William Moran) – photographer for the Darien Expedition

Charles Doolittle Walcott


 The above image shows a snowball fight among members of a USGS field party on August 5, 1903.  According to the USGS Photographic Library, the episode occurred at the head of Gray Bull River near the east side of the summit, Shoshone Mountains, Park County, Wyoming.  This photograph was taken by Charles Doolittle Walcott, the third director of the USGS.  Walcott is world-renown for discovering and documenting the soft-bodied Cambrian Burgess Shale fauna in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada.  Walcott’s Burgess Shale discovery was made in 1909.  Walcott also served as Director of the Smithsonian Institution. 


Draft – Subject to Revision
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5 thoughts on “Images with History

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