Exceptional Perspective

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Great Falls of the Missouri

Lithograph of Great Falls by Mathews

Lithograph by A. E. Mathews1

The sketch, Mathews wrote, "was made from the left hand bank, which has rarely been visited by white men. The artist crossed the river below the falls on a small log raft, at eminent peril of being dashed by the furious current against some of the many sharp rocks with which it is filled. On either side of the Missouri there are long Buffalo trails, worn in many places into gullies, leading from the praries at the foot of the distant mountains to the river. Since the extensive travel on the Helena and Fort Benton road, Buffaloes are becoming scarce in this part of Montana."2

Alfred Edward Mathews (1831-1874) emigrated to the U.S. from England to become an itinerant bookseller and artist. After serving in the Civil War he headed west, producing some of the earliest views of Texas (1861), Colorado (1866 and 1870), and Gems of Rocky Mountain Scenery: Containing Views Along and Near the Union Pacific Railroad (1869).

The technology basic to the science and art of photography evolved during the 18th and early nineteenth centuries. In 1816 a French scientist combined the camera obscura with photosensitive paper, and after ten more years of experimentation finally produced a permanent image. In 1837 Louis Daguerre successfully demonstrated his invention, by which a copper sheet coated with silver iodide was "exposed," and then "developed" with warm mercury. The Daguerrotype was displaced in 1851 by the new and cheaper wet plate collodion process, which permitted unlimited reproductions, and which prevailed until George Eastman perfected a dry-plate process in 1879.

In his introduction to Pencil Sketches of Montana, Mathews expressed a conservative view on the aesthetics of outdoor photography:

The author has frequently been asked why he did not take a Photographic Instrument along, in order to photograph Mountain scenery; for it is generally supposed that a photograph of Mountain scenery is always perfectly accurate. This, however, is far from being the case. In taking a picture, the lens of an instrument must be adjusted to focus on a certain object or objects; and all others more distant, or nearer, will be more or less indistinct. Another disadvantage of an instrument is that objects near at hand are magnified, while those farther off are reduced in size. So apparent is this defect in large photographs of persons that a small picture is now first taken, and afterwards copied and enlarged. Shadows, too, are apt to be deepened and lights intensified. A good artist can, with ordinary care, produce a more accurate and pleasing picture with the pencil or brush.

Fundamentally, Mathews' objection is still valid. The human eye, linked to the brain, is of course subjective, and thus selective; the camera lens, reacting only to light within the range of its own inanimate eye, is objective and comprehensive. However, during the twentieth century the medium became so integral a part of everyday life, worldwide, that its optical illusions are now tacetly accepted as realities.

1. A. E. Mathews (1831-1874), Pencil Sketches of Montana (New York: published by the author,1868), Plate XXIV.

2. The road Mathews referred to was part of the Mullan Road, a federal project begun in 1859 and completed in 1862 under the direction of Lieutenant John Mullan, of the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers. The 624-mile wagon road provided the first travel route across the Rocky Mountains for emigration and commerce between Fort Benton, Montana and Walla Walla, Washington, the upper terminals for steamboats on the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, respectively. The effect of the Mullan Road on the bison population of the plains was minor in comparison with other factors, such as the bison-robe trade, and the penetration of the plains by railroads in the 1870s and '80s. See John Mullan, Report on the Construction of a Military Road from Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton, 1863 (reprint, with introduction and notes by Kimberly Rice Brown, Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1994).