English-born photographer William Bell immigrated to the United States as a child and later embarked on a prolific and varied career as a photographer. His first foray into photography came with employment in his brother-in-law’s daguerreotype studio in Philadelphia in 1848, shortly after his return from fighting in the Mexican-American War. He eventually opened his own studio in 1860, but with the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined the Union Army in 1862, serving as an infantryman until he accepted the position of chief photographer for the United States Army Medical Museum. During his two years at the museum, he documented the physical injuries suffered by soldiers during the Civil War as well as a variety of medical and surgical procedures. Many of these photographs were reproduced in the Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861–65) (Washington, DC, 1870–1888), one of the earliest and most important records of the medical impact of war.
In 1867 Bell moved back to Philadelphia to open a portrait studio, but he returned to government service five years later, this time to replace Timothy O’Sullivan as the photographer accompanying the Wheeler Survey of 1872. Led by Lieutenant George M. Wheeler, this US Army–sponsored expedition surveyed and documented the American territories west of the 100th meridian. A detailed study of topographical features and natural resources for settlement and mining, the project brought together topographers, cartographers, a geologist, an artist, a journalist, and a taxidermist. Bell photographed along the Colorado River and the upper parts of the Grand Canyon in southwestern Utah and northwestern Arizona, creating some of the 19th century’s most spectacular images of the American West.
Bell made Looking South into the Grand Cañon, Colorado River, Sheavwitz Crossing for the Wheeler Survey. With its vertical orientation, breathtaking vantage point, and dramatic contrasts of light and dark, the photograph is characteristic of Bell’s majestic presentations of landscape; more than a topographic description, Bell’s image evokes the striking grandeur of the Grand Canyon. This print is the third work by Bell to enter the National Gallery’s collection.
lower left, on image: 9 [reversed, scratched in negative]; above image left on mount in letterpress: Explorations & Surveys West of the 100th Meridian.; center: War Department Corps of Engineers. U.S. Army [as part of official seal]; right, Expedition of 1872-Lieut. Geo. M. Wheeler, Commanding; under image left on mount in letterpress: W.Bell, Phot.; right, No. 9; across bottom under image: Looking South into the Grand Cañon, Colorado River / Sheavwitz Crossing.; on verso, by unknown hand, top left in graphite: 5; top right: illus F [?]149 / 22B
Collection George R. Rinhart, 1980s; private collection, New York; (Charles Isaacs Photographs, Inc., New York, 2011); NGA purchase, 2011.
- "O Say Can You See: American Photographs 1839-1939," Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA, April 8-June 17, 1989; Bowdoin College Museum of Art: October 12-December 12, 1989.