Views on the Mississippi

THE PHOTOGRAPHS
OF HENRY PETER BOSSE

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Views on the Mississippi, published by the University of Minnesota Press, brings together for the first time almost one hundred of Henry Peter Bosse’s most stunning images.

Introduction

By Mark Neuzil

The gray granite memorial sitting heavily on river clay in Oakdale Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa, offers only tiny hints at the mystery and complexity of the person who reposes nearby. The stone reads “Bosse,” marking the resting place of one of the 19th century’s most important photographers. Henry Peter Bosse’s headstone sits in a city he did not call home, a few blocks from a river he knew more intimately than any person in his era.

Quarry

The memorial reveals no hint that Henry Bosse would one day be considered the premier Mississippi River photographer of his time. By the end of the 20th century, his original prints sold for tens of thousands of dollar, and the nation’s finest galleries displayed his work. Experts now consider Bosse’s work alongside that of renowned frontier photographers like William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins and Jack Hillers, although Bosse’s photographs drifted in the backwaters of history for nearly a century.

The government paid these men and many others to document the nation’s westward expansion in the years following the Civil War. Their photographs are often filled with images of people at work, machines in motion and landscapes being forever bent to the whims of industrialism. Bosse’s photographs highlighted expansionism, exploitation and capitalism as the United States finished the job of taming the frontier. His known prints, taken from 1883-1893, came a few years later than the bulk of the historically significant photographs taken by Hillers, Watkins, O’Sullivan and Jackson, who often worked farther West in a wilderness setting. When Bosse learned the art of photography to aid his work as a mapmaker for the Army, the frontier was very nearly closed. But if one looks closely, the end of the frontier is visible in Bosse’s photographs as the Mississippi’s great wilderness of islands, chutes, rapids, sloughs, coulees and its immense floodplain was tamed by social forces.

Much of Bosse’s life is a mystery. He left no papers, no diary, no notebooks and no children. He didn’t join any of the several German-American associations in his adopted hometown of Rock Island, Illinois, nor was he listed as a member of any of the area’s major churches. All we have left are his pictures. All of Bosse’s photographs were composed on or near the Mississippi River and were taken while he worked as a draftsman for the Corps of Engineers from Minnesota to Missouri. His work, in the unusual shape and style of large-format cyanotype albums, documents a river being transformed from the braided, island-filled Father of Waters familiar to the native tribes to a dammed, dredged and channeled industrial waterway.

Hastings BridgeIn addition to landscapes, Bosse photographed the bridges and booms, locks and log rafts, wingdams and canals, snagboats and towboats, and cities and quarries that wrestled the river under human control. It was a time of dramatic change on the Mississippi River and in America and Bosse’s photographs became part of the great commercial and military achievements of the late 1800s. His legacy is secured by rare pictures of a river never to be seen again. The photographs leave the viewer with a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for the natural river that was lost to the forces of commerce.

Government photographers had several geographic features named after them. There is a Jackson Canyon and Jackson Butte, a Mt. Watkins and a Mt. Hillers. Such physical places help keep memories of the photographers alive. But Bosse had no bluff, no tributary or chain; he did get a towboat re-christened in his honor, posthumously, but it was lost in a storm. Without some plain luck, Bosse would have been lost in history, too.

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Copyright © 2001 Mark Neuzil
Email Mark Neuzil at mrneuzil@stthomas.edu
Web design by Michael O'Donnell
University of St. Thomas
Email Michael O'Donnell at mjodonnell@stthomas.edu
Last updated Aug. 20, 2001