HOME  >  Browse  >  Photographs  >  Photographic Masterworks  >  San Francisco Panoramic View

the only known copy of Jackson's masterpiece - a monumental panorama of San Francisco

(SAN FRANCISCO.) Jackson, William Henry. San Francisco Panoramic View

W. H. Jackson, c. 1888

Albumen print (a single 16 ½ x 78 ½ in. print on its original 23 ¾ x 83 ¾ in. paper mount with linen backing). Manuscript caption on the recto, “W H Jackson Phot. Co. Denver Col.” Very minor tears to the mount with one touching the image, several very minor cracks in the emulsion. Excellent condition and tonal quality.

This is a magnificent, unique view of a vanished San Francisco by William Henry Jackson, a giant of American West photography.

This enormous view, extending to six and one-half feet in length, appears to be Jackson’s largest known panoramic albumen photograph. This is the only known example of this important albumen panorama. Soon after Jackson made this monumental photograph in 1888, steel construction would begin to transform the San Francisco skyline. The 1906 earthquake and the ensuing fire destroyed more than 80% of the city, leveling 25,000 buildings on 490 city blocks.

This spectacular San Francisco panorama presents the view from Russian Hill, looking east towards Berkeley, down Vallejo Street past St. Francis of Assisi. The towered Mark Hopkins mansion (1878) and the James Flood mansion (1886) to its right are both visible on Nob Hill. In the distance, Yerba Buena (Goat) Island is bare (the saplings planted by school children on the first California Arbor Day in 1885 would not be visible until the 1890s). The Financial District at the right does not yet show the Chronicle Building (1890), which would become the first skyscraper in San Francisco.

This fascinating image shows plumes of smoke drifting across the city. The building in the foreground belching smoke is the cable car barn, which was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. At the time San Francisco was largely powered by soft coal from nearby Mt. Diablo, but period photographs rarely reflect this everyday reality. Photographers may have waited for exceptionally clear days, or perhaps the winds from the Pacific usually sent smoke to neighboring Oakland.

A giant of western photography. William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) was one of the pioneering photographers of the American West. He began his career in Omaha in 1867 and established his reputation as photographer for government surveys, documenting the construction of the railroads and the growth of new towns. Operating out of his studio in Denver, opened in 1879, Jackson created “a record of Western reporting that no man has equaled” (American Album). Jackson traveled to California for the first time in 1888, when he created this photograph just before San Francisco began the transformation made possible by steel construction. Jackson “continues to be one of the most studied and written about American 19th century photographers” (Harrell).

A MAJOR INNOVATION IN PANORAMIC PHOTOGRAPHY. Jackson and other photographers after the Civil War sometimes used mammoth-plate (up to 18 x 22 in. and even larger) cameras to capture the greatest detail possible in their photographs. Panoramas were made by printing series of prints and mounting them side-by-side, but the joining of these prints often created unsightly, stained seams detracting from their visual impact. As early as 1876 Jackson had mused on the possibility of creating seamless panoramas. Finally in the late 1880s he devised an innovative technique involving a printing frame incorporating albumen paper on rollers. This invention allowed the creation of seamless albumen prints of unheard of length.

The discovery in the 1980s of a cache of panoramas from Jackson’s own archives—and of Jackson’s original printing frame at a museum in Nebraska—helped scholar John W. Nagel to solve the mystery of Jackson’s seam-free technique. Nagel noted that “In all the scrutiny that William Henry Jackson’s work has received, and for all the study given to 19th century photography, it seems very unusual that this extraordinary body of panorama work has never been brought to light” (Nagel, 2013).

JACKSON’S LARGEST ALBUMEN PANORAMA. This enormous view, extending to six and one-half feet in length, appears to be Jackson’s largest known panoramic albumen photograph. This is the only known example of this important albumen panorama. We have consulted the leading California institutions and the Jackson archival collections in Colorado and at the Library of Congress, and we have searched the auction record–this appears to be the sole copy extant. This is a spectacular display piece worthy of a distinguished place in a leading museum or private collection.

Provenance: Isabelle Haynes, daughter-in-law of Yellowstone photographer F. J. Haynes. F. J. Haynes purchased many of Jackson’s earliest Denver-era photographs when the Detroit Photographic Company, which Jackson had joined in 1897, declared bankruptcy in 1923.

Reference: Nagel, John W. “William Henry Jackson Panorama Photography—A Little Known Technique of the 19th Century,” Enlighten: The IPHF Journal, Autumn 2013.