This collection includes sixteen gold-toned, albumen prints, printed from negatives made by William Bell while on the Wheeler Expedition of 1872. Fourteen photographs are from Arizona, and two are from Utah. The primary subjects of this collection are picturesque landscapes made of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Some of Bell's photographs from this expedition were used for prints in George M. Wheeler's Report Upon United States Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian...(Washington: GPO, 1875-1889). This collection is composed of one series entitled the Wheeler Expedition of 1872 Series.
The government included photographers on western expeditions to make a visual record of the landscape and its inhabitants. The photographs created during these expeditions served to create maps used to plan for the construction of roads and railways; locate natural resources; facilitate future military operations; as well as to collect ethnographic information on and locate Indian tribes. Perhaps most importantly, the commanders of western expeditions used the resulting photographs as a public relations tool to gain support for future expeditions, and to record geological information, the study of which had become a popular science during the period. By the time of their completion, the surveys had explored much of the region between the Great Plains and the Pacific Coast. This recording made Bell and the other western expeditionary photographers some of the earliest participants in America's tradition of documentary photography.
While in the field, Bell utilized a photographic process somewhat uncharacteristic for his time; he prepared his own dry-plate negatives. This process allowed him to store prepared plates longer than his contemporaries, who used wet plates, but would have also increased the exposure times for his plates.
|1830 || Born Liverpool, England |
|1848 || Began photographic career working for his brother-in-law's daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia |
|1872 || Served as photographer for the Wheeler Survey, West of the 100th Meridian |
|1910 || Died in Philadelphia, Pa. |
In 1872, William Bell, a photographer from Philadelphia, found employment on a survey team established by the Army and formally titled: "U.S. Geographical and Geological Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, under the command of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler." Bell had been hired by Wheeler to replace Timothy O'Sullivan, another expeditionary photographer, who participated in the Wheeler survey of 1871 and returned in 1873.
Perhaps because William Bell participated in only one expedition, a limited amount of biographical information has been recorded for him, and that information is often vague. William Bell has most often been confused with another photographer Dr. William A. Bell (1841-1920) who served on the Palmer Expedition of 1867 for which William Jackson Palmer surveyed a route through the southwest for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
William Bell may have fought in the US-Mexican War and for the Union in the Civil War.
Some sources have also indicated that William Bell was appointed chief photographer of the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C., where he may have made photographs of soldiers wounded in the Civil War.
This collection was previously processed by Bill Erwin in 1982. Erwin conducted a great deal of research used to identify photographs made by western expeditionary photographers. Every effort was made to retain both the organization and informational aspects of his work except when they conflicted with more modern practices.
Information folders contain copies of earlier catalog records and bibliographic information for related sources including sources in which these photographs have been published.
Additional folders contain photocopies of photographs annotated by the National Archives, and reference prints made from copy negatives held in this collection.
Processed by Chris Black, November 24, 2004
Encoded by Michael Shumate, Chris Black
Completed August 2006
Accession is described in this finding aid.