More than 140 years ago Yellowstone National Park was an almost mythical place, not yet fully explored or even photographed.
In 1871 William Henry Jackson with the Hayden survey captured the first images of gurgling mud pots and spouting geysers. These images, along with paintings by Thomas Moran and oral and written accounts of the area, convinced Congress Yellowstone deserved protection.
Photojournalist Brad Boner spent three summers retracing Jackson’s steps and recreating those influential images. The resulting book “Yellowstone National Park: Through The Lens Of Time,” will feature his images next to Jackson’s. It will also, Boner believes, be the first time all of Jackson’s photographs from the first expedition are printed in one place.
Peaks to Plains caught up with Boner, who is also writer Kelsey Dayton’s former colleague, to talk about the project and the park.
How important were these images to Yellowstone becoming the first national park?
They were tangible proof that all these things in Yellowstone existed. There had been accounts of these things, but they sounded so extraordinary they were passed off as embellishment. Mountain men talking about geysers, mud pots and huge waterfalls — people thought those were romantic embellishments of the fur trappers.
You already had spent time in Yellowstone, what new places did the book take you?
An 11-day canoe trip around Yellowstone Lake, where about a dozen of Jackson’s photos were taken at different points. Then of course there was the Mirror Plateau, a place I never would have even thought to go. There are no trails leading up to Mirror Lake. There would have been no reason for me to go up there. There’s not a reason for anybody to go up there. It’s a beautiful landscape, but it’s very rugged. It’s very remote.
Were those the hardest shots to get?
The Mirror Plateau was definitely the most difficult to get to. We hiked more than 30 miles just to shoot four pictures. From an effort standpoint, that was a difficult set of photographs to get. There’s one place in the Grand Canyon where Jackson took a photograph and I tried to get to that spot. I was standing on the edge of this 1,000-foot cliff and I realized where Jackson took this picture was another 15 feet out in the void.The place where Jackson stood to take this photograph doesn’t exist anymore.
Did you recreate every image Jackson took on the trip?
I focused on the pictures from when they were in Yellowstone. There are 108 In Jackson’s official catalogue. I re-photographed all of them except one, because that photograph doesn’t exist. It’s listed in the catalogue. There’s descriptions of two pictures of Crystal Falls between the upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone River. But I could only find one of those pictures.
Did changes, or lack of changes, surprise you?
I didn’t go into it with a lot of expectations, but there were several times that I was very surprised, not just how unchanged the landscape was, but the level of detail that remained over time. There were individual rocks the size of bowling balls that were still in the exact same place, but at the same time massive boulders shifted, moved or disappeared entirely.
What place changed the most?
The terraces at Mammoth Hot Springs. It’s incredible to see how much growth the terraces have seen in 140 years. You can see subtle changes day-to-day, but you really only get the magnitude by looking at these pictures with such a great span of time between photographs. There were several hundred feet of expansion in some of these terraces. Most of the time I tried to shoot exactly what Jackson photographed, but there were times, like at Mammoth, where I had to photograph them at a much wider angle to show the growth and expansion.
What gear did Jackson use to create his photographs?
An 8-by-10-inch large format camera and also a 5×7, which creates two photos side-by-side with one negative. The 8×10 used a glass plate negative that had to be exposed and processed on site. He couldn’t take a picture and develop it later. He had to set up a dark tent. He had between five and 15 minutes to apply the chemicals, expose it to light and develop it. He wrote how efficient he got getting off a pack mule, unpacking his gear, taking the photo and developing it and then loading everything back up. He could do it in half an hour. So if he was riding across the trail and saw something he wanted to photograph it would take at least 30 minutes.
What do you hope people get out of seeing this book?
I’d like to think that in 140 years someone might try to recreate my pictures and see what the changes are, and I’d like to think these places will look the same other than a forest fire, or an earthquake that has influenced the landscape. I would like to think my kids and my grandkids will be able to look at the same scenes I did, because I’m looking at the same scenes that Jackson did.
I definitely hope that people take away that our effort to preserve Yellowstone is worthwhile and this is visual proof. I think it’s a powerful message. And I think that message is sometimes lost in the volatile discourse that we have. We can argue the nuances of appropriate uses of Yellowstone, but I think we should universally embrace that preserving places like Yellowstone is a worthwhile endeavor and that it’s something we should all support.
Did this project change your feelings about Yellowstone?
I would say this project gave me a much deeper appreciation of the place and it also gave me a much deeper appreciation for the general idea of preservation of Yellowstone National Park and the general mission of the National Park Service to preserve these places for the next generation. That’s what these people did back in 1871 and 1872 — they decided this place was too important and too extraordinary to just let it be developed and exploited. They saw the importance and value of preserving it for generations. We can see that in these photographs. In a lot these photographs, we’re looking at exactly what they saw 140-plus years ago.
Boner’s expedition is complete and his photos have all been taken, but “Yellowstone National Park: Through The Lens Of Time,” isn’t yet assured of publication. He’s using Kickstarter to raise $20,000, about a third of the total printing cost, as part of a publishing deal with the University Press of Colorado.