Panoramic Photography of the Alaskan Frontier 1910-1932

Photo of horses on pilgrimageThe USGS houses many stunning photographs depicting early American landscapes and researchers at work in the field. Unlike today’s world, filled with images from smart phones, photography in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s photography was a much more difficult pursuit.

Richard Schneider, from the National Archives Preservation Program, gave a fascinating presentation to the USGS Denver Library staff and members of the Colorado archive community on August 7, 2012 about the photographs of Major James Warren Bagley.  Bagley took panoramic photos of Alaska while preparing topographical maps for the Survey from 1910 – 1932.  Mr. Schneider explained the process involved in capturing these shots, including Bagley’s specialized camera adaptations and the need to process and store film in the field. Being early twentieth century Alaska,  there were no paved roads,  railroads, or any type of motor vehicle that could be used to transport USGS personnel and their photographic equipment over the rough terrain.  Pack trains of horses were used to carry the surveyors, their equipment, processing chemicals, nitrate film, and supplies across Alaska during the short summer season.  Bagley wrote USGS Bulletin 657 in 1917 entitled “The use of the panoramic camera in topographic surveying with notes on the application of photogrammetry to aerial surveys” that discusses his technique for capturing these historic and functional photographs.  It is significant to remember that the photographs were only meant to serve as resource material for the topographic maps Bagley and his group were making.

The National Archives acquired the nitrate negatives of Bagley’s expedition from the USGS Denver Library Photographic Collection in 2007.  Archivists at NARA made copy negatives from the nitrate originals for preservation purposes since the original nitrate negatives were deteriorating and presented a potential fire hazard.  During this process, Mr. Schneider discovered thousands of Alaskan panoramas. The cooperative effort of USGS and NARA ensures that these photographs will be preserved and available to the public for generations to come.

For more information about the historical photography of the USGS, visit:

Pictured: photographer James Bagley, far right.

Pictured: photographer James Bagley, far right.

By 1917, James Bagley (pictured with hand on hip) would have more of an interest in developing aerial photography for USGS needs.  The program of using panoramas however, would continue until 1932.  J. W. Bagley, Port Valdez District, Station 71, Frames 3 and 4.  “College Fjord”. South-central Alaska. 1916.

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