An Early Look at the American West: The Photography of Charles Weed

03/30/2015     News and Film

Freeman's Books, Maps & Manuscripts department is pleased to offer early works by 19th century photographer Charles Leander Weed in their upcoming April 23 auction Books, Maps & Manuscripts including Photographs. Charles Leander Weed (1824-1903) is often regarded as the first photographer to have captured the grandeur of Yosemite Valley. Despite being a contemporary of notable pioneer photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Edweard Muybridge, a rather spectral legacy of Weed survives, lacking much biographical information and leaving behind only faint trails of the trajectory of his photographic efforts. Scarce extant examples of his work remain, but his most well-known work was made during two excursions into Yosemite in 1859 and 1864; the albumen prints produced during the former trip and the mammoth-plate albumen prints from the latter trip are generally accepted to have preceded those of Watkins and Muybridge. Earlier still are the two examples of Weed 's first photographic excursion in the West in 1858, being offered in the Photographs portion of Freeman's April 23rd auction.In February of 1858, Weed had gone into business with the illustrious daguerreotypist Robert Vance to open a studio in San Francisco, offering “Ambrotypes, Photographs or Daguerreotypes” to patrons. It was around this time that Weed had forayed into the burgeoning photographic process of wet-plate glass negatives, which allowed for a paper printing-out process of reproduction unlike the daguerreotype that was dominant in the West at the time. In October of 1858 he ventured out to the Middle Fork of the American River, travelling as far as Forest Hill, with his camera and darkroom tent to capture a series of gold mining images.These mining images were salted paper prints—the first type of photographic paper print—presumably made from glass plate negatives like he later used in Yosemite, and seem to be the earliest examples of his transition from the daguerreotype into wet-plate photography. While Charles Leander Weed's Yosemite mammoth-plate albumen prints are rare, these earlier salted paper prints may be rarer still. Known copies are housed at Stanford University, the Bancroft Library of the University of California and the George Eastman House.Freeman 's April 23 auction Books, Maps & Manuscripts including Photographs presents two examples from this series: "Forest Hill, Under the Hill, Placer Co.” and “Kennebec, Wildcat, Willow and Hoosier Bars, Middle Fork, American River.” Both of these rare salted paper prints are some of the earliest photographic images on paper of the American West, at a time when what little Western photography existed was rendered by dagguereotypists. Though records of photographic activity in the West during this period were so inconsistent that the exact timeline may never truly be teased out, these images are posited to have been created at the very forefront of the emergence of the Western photograph in the 1860s; they represent a rare, fixed glimpse into a period of transition in the West, both photographically and historically at the tail end of the daguerreotype and Gold Rush eras.Exhibition for Books, Maps & Manuscripts including Photographs opens to the public at 1808 Chestnut on Friday, April 17.View the complete auction catalogueOn April 23, 2015 “Kennebec, Wildcat, Willow and Hoosier Bars, Middle Fork, American River” exceeded pre-auction estimates, selling for $6,250. "Forest Hill, Under the Hill, Placer Co.” brought $2,500.