Born in Keesville, New York, and trained as a painter, William Henry Jackson began his photographic career as a retoucher and colorist in photographic studios in New York and Vermont. He served as a staff artist in a Vermont regiment during the Civil War, and afterward, he headed west, first trying to find success as a miner. He soon began working as a colorist again, and in 1867 he established his own photography studio in Omaha, Nebraska, with his brother Ed. He later admitted that "portrait photography never had any charms for me, so I sought my subjects from the housetops, and finally from the hilltops and the surrounding country; the taste strengthening as my successes became greater in proportion to the failures."
He began photographing both landscapes and Native Americans along the route of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1868. Two years later his work came to the attention of Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden of the U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories. Jackson joined the 1871 expedition to Yellowstone and continued participating in surveys until 1879. His survey work secured Jackson’s fame as one of the leading landscape photographers of the 19th century. In 1879 he established the Jackson Photographic Company in Denver, Colorado, and was commissioned by several railroad companies to produce photographs of trains and views of the landscape along the train tracks, both to publicize the scenic vistas and to celebrate the engineering marvels of the railroad. During this time he switched from the older photographic technology of the wet collodion negative to the newer dry collodion plates.
Central City, Colorado, c. 1881, was made during the second phase of Jackson’s career. A product of the gold rush, Central City was founded in 1859 in the Rocky Mountains when the precious metal was discovered in a nearby gulch. Positioned on a hill overlooking the town to get a bird’s-eye view, Jackson’s mammoth plate camera captured a wealth of detail, even showcasing the commercial signs on the sides of the central town buildings. The view affords an overall sense of the size and scope of the town, as the domestic residences dot the hills sloping upward from the center. Jackson’s image evokes the newness and rough edges of the booming and rapidly expanding western town and creates a sense of dynamism through the diagonal lines of the main roads meeting at the center of the picture.