Book Review: East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth Century American Landscape Photography by Diane Waggoner, Russell Lord, & Jennifer Raab
By Miabelle Salzano
For those interested in learning about America in the nineteenth century, East of the Mississippi will provide information on practically everything other than the Great Frontier. Reading somewhat like an art history textbook, this book is as informative as it is interesting. The essays and pictures focus on the technological advancements and natural beauty of the east during a time when the public eye was focused on the western frontier.
Some of the photographs in this book do not look antiquated despite the years that have passed since they were taken. The environmental committees dedicated to preserving national parks have done a remarkable job keeping the landscapes just as they were two centuries ago. While celebrating natural wonders like Niagara Falls, the White Mountains, and the Adirondacks, this collection also documents human interference with the environment with industrialization and war. Many of the photographs capture the progression of industrialization in the pursuit to build a nation juxtaposed with the fresh wilderness of the still young east.
Something about photographs taken of a different time induce nostalgia of a life that we think was somehow much simpler, but was really quite similar. Apart from the preservation of natural wonders, the nature of the American people has been well-preserved as well. The inception of the American need for more (land, money, knowledge) was captured in these photographs. The ships and railroad tracks that were a technological wonder then are comparable to the cars and delivery apps that we have grown accustomed to today. This book provides a great history of the constantly developing yet relatively unchanging culture of the American people.
The essays included in this book provide information on the influence these photographs, and the photographers behind them, on tourism and environmentalism in the region. While the literature of the 19th century had already attached a childlike lore and fantasy to the environment of the east, the photography represented the reality of the landscape. Diane Waggoner, one of the book’s contributing writers and curator of the exhibition, refers to the literature of writers like Mark Twain, Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau as having influenced American ideals of the environment. Her essay “A Nation Announcing Itself” goes into detail about how photography helped shape the developing mythologies of the environment from bedtime stories into a tool for the future. Photographs documented the glory of battlefields and superior industrial technology, as well as the integration of beautiful architecture into the landscapes portrayed in stories by writers like Twain and Irving. They also showed the sublimeness of of the untouched wilderness depicted in the writings of transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. This brought tourists to the area, which in turn brought money, spurring the economy and giving way for more industrial growth.
It is interesting how these photographs were never allotted much attention compared to those of the Western Frontier, being that the east is where most settlers and economic activity took place in the nineteenth century. These photographs give a look at the United States sans the glamour of the Gold Rush or the excitement of the frontier cowboys; a behind-the-scenes look at the United States in its state of advancement.