[Rare studies of work on the Mississippi by Henry Peter Bosse, who was an engineer first and a photographer only second.]
In 1890, a year after the Oklahoma Land Rush, the great race by 50,000 settlers to claim previously Seminole lands after a starting gun was – literally – fired on April 22, 1889, the director of the US Census declared that the frontier was closed. “There can hardly be said to be a frontier line.” He meant it in a specific and technical sense, that the line which divided population densities of less than two persons per square mile from heavier settlement was now impossible to trace. Three years later, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner expounded at the then-new Art Institute in Chicago his influential doctrine that the character of American democracy had been formed by the frontier. At that time, a few miles away, crowds were flocking to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition (known also as the World’s Fair).
Tesla demonstrated the lightbulb and Westinghouse the alternating current generator (and George Ferris built the Ferris wheel and somebody displayed a chocolate machine so impressive that Milton Hershey switched from making caramel to chocolate). Theodore Dreiser was one of many visitors who had cause to remember the Fair: I think he met his wife there.
Chicago may well have remained a wild, wild town in its mores for some years longer (as bears witness Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, which dates from 1906); but after the 1893 Exhibition, it could hardly be thought a frontier. The great rail-head, the focal point of all US trade, it had been sited where it was partly because it was so close to the Mississippi watershed.
One can argue with Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis at all sort of levels, and many historians have contested bits or the whole of it. But the double myths of the West – of the wild lands being ‘civilized’, and of civilized townies getting a bit of the wilds in them, have become recurring tropes of the American view of America. America has been looking for new frontiers – including Space, famously, the ‘final frontier’ – ever since. And conversely, the cults of outdoorsmanship remain undimmed, including guns and survivalism for some, or building self-sufficient communities off-grid for others.
The myth of the West was strong even as the frontier was being declared closed. Among paintings, for example, Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair.
Numerous government agencies showed the photographs they had commissioned, many of them of expeditions west of one kind or another. Timothy O’Sullivan’s and Eadweard Muybridge’s pictures of the west were shown at the Fair, and so were William Henry Jackson’s, who had accompanied Moran to Yellowstone. Jackson’s and Moran’s pictures are arguably what made it a national park – a literal taming of the West. Jackson also made numerous photographs of the fair itself. In other registers, Eastman showed there, and there were representatives from abroad, too. Among them all were a number of pictures by contributors from the Corps of Engineers, including Henry Peter Bosse (he’s pronounced Bossy, I think).
Bosse was a draughtsman mapmaker on the upper Mississippi, assigned to that branch of the Army Corps of Engineers based at Rock Island, Illinois from 1878 until his death in 1903. As an Englishman, I had to look up where Rock Island is. I’d only ever heard of it in the context of Leadbelly’s classic Rock Island Line – reworked a number of times, including a version right in the far recesses of my memory by Harry Belafonte.
Bosse’s story is a wonderful one for a number of reasons. To start at the wrong end, it has a number of bad endings which almost scupper it. A large number of his glass negatives, for example, almost all of them, were dropped and smashed in an office move. He himself, come to think of it, could have survived longer. He died at 59, poisoned by improperly canned asparagus. Bosse’s work, like that of so many photographers, could simply have not survived.
In the early 1990s, a number of dealers (including Denise Bethel, not yet head of the photographs department at Sotheby’s) became aware of some of Bosse’s pictures. Prices were discussed, a few collectors were alerted, some sales were made. John Anfinson, a historian attached to the Corps of Engineers, was contacted about Bosse. He ferreted around and found a photograph of the cover of an album that had not yet appeared. “Presented to US Dredge William A. Thompson by Mrs. William A. Thompson.” (Dredge is the Americanism for what British people call a dredger. It’s a type of boat. In English English, the dredge is specifically the mud-digging or mud-sucking apparatus on the boat.)
The Corps of Engineers has the pleasant habit of renaming its boats after long-serving employees: Thompson had been a colleague of Bosse’s. (Bosse got one of his own: after his death, the Vixen was renamed Henry Bosse in 1908, but unfortunately that one capsized in 1913.) Anfinson checked, and sure enough, there was still an album on the Thompson: it had been chugging up and down the Mississippi in the captain’s desk drawer for something like 50 years. Miraculously, it was undamaged by damp or dust, by bugs or boatmen. That album was valued high ($4.5M high) and Bosse’s place in photographic history was made secure. As Wellington said of Waterloo, it was a damned nice thing…the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life. There are now Bosse pictures online, museums have Bosse holdings, there’s plenty of Bosse scholarship (some of which of course I acknowledge here with thanks).
In a blog of this kind, it is all too easy to write disproportionately (much and often) about that tiny part of photographic activity which has overt claims to art. It is salutary sometimes to underline that photography makes its own art. The great master photographers take their habits, their working methods, their interests and prejudices from where they find them. Bosse wasn’t an artist. He was a jolly amateur cartoonist, a dab at lettering, a prince among cartographic draughtsmen. He became a brilliant photographer. For the ten or so years that he photographed up and down the Mississippi, he was a state employee (he worked on the river much longer, but seems to have photographed only between about 1883-1893). It was work. Important work in the national interest, to be taken seriously. To say that Bosse would not have considered himself an artist doesn’t imply that he was visually illiterate or naïve. He had artistry; even genius. But that’s not what he was selling.
His subject was the taming of the Mississippi – one of the notoriously incontinent rivers of the world – into a usable commercial highway. The Mississippi is a great sluggish beast chock-full of silt, and it has the habit of flooding and violently changing its course.
Taming the river was not just a question of civic pride. Until the expansion of the railroads, the Mississippi represented the likeliest trade route for a country that was beginning to demonstrate its insatiable appetite for trade. It had been a major trade route surprisingly early: by the 1820s the river was churned by steamboats as far north as Minnesota, enough of them in fierce competition that it was cheaper to send goods East by going down the Mississippi and around the long sea passage than to send them over the land route through the Appalachians – even though the land route is ten times shorter.
The Army Corps of Engineers has long been tied to huge projects that might elsewhere be given to civilian contractors. Among these are national parks, road and railway construction, and of course a huge programme of working with water – for irrigation, navigation, flood-protection, and later, hydroelectric power. After Bosse’s death, the depression-era programme of kick-starting the economy through public works was partly carried out by the Engineers, responsible for such all-American monuments as the Fort Peck Dam – whose very Socialist representation by Margaret-Bourke White appeared on the cover of the first issue of Life in 1936.
In Bosse’s day, the Engineers had funds to create a channel of a certain depth up the length of the upper Mississippi. At first, that was four feet six inches; later more money was found and a channel depth of nine foot was aimed at over the entire length of the river above St. Louis.
Bosse was interested in a number of specifically river structures: weirs, locks, wingdams, levees… (a wingdam is a carefully angled obstruction built deliberately to speed the current to scour out a particular shallows). He was interested in a number of specifically river effects: rapids, floods, meanders…He was interested in the possibilities of bridges, docks, wharves. And he spent his working life on boats: snag-boats, tug-boats, dredgers, workboats and so on. That might have remained the working environment of Abraham Lincoln, who had spent a while as a flatboatman on the Mississippi, completing at least one journey from New Salem, Illinois, to New Orleans. It did remain Bosse’s working environment his entire working life.
The reason his pictures were (usually) made as cyanotypes was severely practical: he worked for the Corps of Engineers. Cyanotype was a sensible, relatively sturdy way to make cheap copies of diagrams and plans. Bosse could mix cyanotype chemistry even in a cramped cabin on a boat. But there is every reason to believe that as well as the stench of Mississippi mud, Bosse had poetry in his soul.
Engineers’ blue is a type of brick, made of heavier clay than the standard, more nearly waterproof, even less easy to crush. It was used by Victorian builders where great strength was needed, but because it looked so different, it also provided a simple vocabulary for (restrained) decorative fanciness. That is exactly how I feel about Bosse’s blue. It’s a tool, but one which allows a hint of flourish. Nothing gaudy, certainly nothing sensational. Bosse remains a steady working man. But that blue becomes his metre, his idiom. Time and again he puts little figures in the foreground of his pictures as Moran put them on a rise in front of Yellowstone. Do they represent the enormity of the task that he was tackling? Human frailty in the face of the river gods? Or are they there as a surveyor’s ranging rod, to give scale? I’m sure Bosse had both in mind. He was a practical man – and a practical man is the epitome of the American dream. But he was also a photographer, making images to be dreamt over as well as merely read.
Surely that’s why he chose to make his pictures oval in the presentation albums that he took most care over. The oval signified a view. The oval was the shape of the eye: in French (which I have absolutely no reason to believe Bosse knew, but still) there is the expression a coup d’oeil, meaning a glance or look. The oval represents that, a deliberate eyeful of the Mississippi, to be contrasted against merely sighting some bit of the thing. The pictures are superbly composed. They are river views in the same way that Peter Henry Emerson was making river views in Norfolk at about the same time.
Emerson thought of himself as making naturalistic photographs; as far as we know Bosse didn’t trouble himself with such things; they are just photographs. They are records, statements of belief, elegant graphical shapes, mnemonics, arguments, totems, invitations all at the same time. Too complicated? That’s what photographs do; they smash our flimsy divisions between different kinds of thinking. The oval is the shape of fancy mounts in photographic company catalogues: this may be a factual view of an iron bridge, but it puts that bridge in its proper context, of the glorious triumph of the taming of the river – itself a big part of the taming of the West – by doughty engineers attached to the citizen Army of the self-identified most exceptional country in the world. It isn’t fanciful to think of Bosse’s Mississippi as a kind of watery history painting. Here was destiny. Only in Bosse’s world, it didn’t have hussars bravely galloping through cannon-smoke. It had a four-and-half foot channel to clear.