Between 1867 and 1957 hundreds of photographers visited the Columbia River Gorge. They were amateurs and professionals; men and women; camera clubbers and tourists. The photographers profiled in The River They Saw all left a stunning visual legacy of a unique and rapidly changing place.
Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916) was one of the first photographers in the Columbia River Gorge. He arrived from San Francisco in 1867 and traveled by steamship upriver and down. He took pictures with his small stereo camera and a “mammoth plate” camera capable of making 18 x 22 inch glass plate negatives. His early images of the Gorge are still considered among the greatest landscape photographs ever made. While many of his prints remain, nearly all of Watkins’ original glass plate negatives were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
In the early 1900s Sarah Hall Ladd (1857-1927) and Lily White (1866-1944) lived together aboard a large houseboat in the Columbia River Gorge. Lily White was from a prosperous pioneer family. Sarah Ladd had married into the wealthy Ladd family. Both excelled at photography and became internationally known for their pictorialist-style landscapes of the Gorge filled with soft light, clouds and atmosphere. Many of their photographs illustrated travel brochures and magazines helping draw tourism to the area. Lily White also took portraits of Native Americans.
Benjamin Gifford (1859-1936) got his start in photography in the Midwest and opened a portrait studio in Portland around 1890. But his interest quickly turned to landscape photography. An accomplished photographer and printer, he became the first photographer in the area to use electric lights to make enlargements. In 1897 Gifford moved to The Dalles and began taking photographs for the railroad companies. He supplied them with mural-size photos of the Columbia River Gorge and other photographs of Oregon scenery that were displayed in train stations across the country. Gifford also became well-known for his remarkable stop-action photography.
Brothers Fred H. (1878-1955) and Oscar H. Kiser (1883-1905) started photography as a hobby. Fred gained recognition as one of the most successful commercial photographers and one of the best artistic mountain photographers in the nation during the first quarter of the 20th century. Through his Kiser Photo Company and other enterprises, he produced and sold prints, albums, stereographs, postcards, and glass lantern slides, many of which were hand-colored in oils. As the official photographer for the Lewis and Clark Exposition at Portland, Ore, in 1905, Kiser gained a wide audience. His photographs helped promote Crater Lake National Park and establish Glacier National Park.
Ray Atkeson (1907-1990) had been employed by a photo studio, first as a janitor, then as an assistant, finally becoming a photographer. And he was one of the first Oregon photographers to get preproduction samples of Kodachrome film when it was invented. Atkeson took his one day a week off and began using color film before many other people had access to it or learned how to use it.
When World War II came along, film was rationed. It could only be obtained, especially Kodachrome, by a military requisition. Atkeson was employed by Photo Art Studios, which was in fact a military contractor and thus he had access to color film.
At the end of the war, most nationally-published magazines converted from primarily black and white to primarily color photography. At that time, Atkeson had the largest personal collection of color photos of the Columbia River Gorge in existence. He had been shooting in color film for eight years and had a large library of color pictures of the Gorge. And that is the moment he launched his freelancer career.
Source: Interview with Thomas Robinson
Monner (1909-1998), born in Portland, spent much of his early childhood on eastern Oregon cattle ranches. Agricultural photography came natural to him and his work appeared in the Farm Journal and, for more than 30 years, in the Oregon Journal. He was an active member of the Mazamas mountaineering club and one of the original members of the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol. He first met fellow photographer Ray Atkeson, by coincidence, on the summit of Mt. Hood.
Between 1867 and 1957 hundreds of photographers traveled through the Columbia Gorge creating stunning images of a magical landscape.
© 2013 Oregon Public Broadcasting.