The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1981, Volume 27, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Photographing the Frontier. By Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 192 pages. $9.95.

Reviewed by Ronald J. Quinn, Instructor of History, Grossmont College, El Cajon, California.

Photographing the Frontier has much to recommend it. Besides providing a host of photographs previously unavailable in one volume, the authors have traced the impact of photography on the development of the frontier.

Pictures were widely used, especially by the railroads, to entice prospective land buyers. Environmentalists promoted the national park system by distributing photographs of the West’s most picturesque locations. Stereo card photographs, viewed through a stereoscope, brought Western scenes to the homes of millions of American consumers by the end of the nineteenth century.

The authors suggest that the photographers of the pioneering process were also its least publicized heroes. Photographers captured the construction of the railroads, participated in the Great Surveys, and preserved the images of early settlement life. With the invention of the wet-plate process, which made the stereo card photograph possible, the photographer was forced to lug hundreds of pounds of equipment to stock his traveling dark room. Compelled to stay miles ahead of the party, or lagging miles behind it, the photographer spent much of his time separated from his companions. Since the presence of the photographer often slowed the pace of the expedition, he was not the most welcomed fellow traveler. The task was at best tedious and at worst extremely dangerous.

Photographs also contributed to the technical development of the frontier. They made map making more accurate, and simplified the task of the road engineer.

Photography reached a mass audience by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This also coincided with the closing of the frontier period. The selections in the Hoobler work provide a permanent record of this transitional period. Perhaps the frontier photographer’s greatest professional achievement was the preservation of wilderness appearances before the onslaught of settlement. Ethnological photographers hurried to obtain a record of Indian life before exposure to outside sources destroyed the pristine qualities of Native American communities. These photographs, along with Matthew Brady’s Civil War shots, represent some of the most creative photography of the nineteenth century.

This book has a wide appeal. Few specialists will not find some new insight into photography and its relationship to the Western experience. Yet the volume’s fresh readable prose saves it from excessive technical jargon. The authors are to be applauded for producing a quality work that has the ability to interest a general audience. The selected bibliography provides good direction for the interested reader. In short, this is an excellent addition to anyone’s library.