Like Lou Costello or Mo of the Three Stooges whenever I hear the name “Niagara Falls” I pause and take a turn. One turn is to, of course, remember the classic comedy routine (when I was growing up it seemed to play on TV all the time) that involves the interactions between a once prosperous and educated bum and an unsuspecting citizen who doesn’t have a clue about the consequences of inquiry. I won’t spoil it for you—take a YouTube look:
The use of Niagara Falls as a cultural metaphor for America (in this case a comedic send-up) is of course a continuation of a mysterious connection to a natural wonder that Tony Bannon focused on in his click! essay about how photographs marketed an American natural wonder and tourist destination to a global audience.
Another “turn” is to remember that single photographs can also have long turns of fortune. Several years ago when researching a collection of 19th century images that were acquired by the Smithsonian American Art Museum I discovered that a photograph of another waterfall “slowly turned” depending on who used it. Chicago studio photographer Alexander Hesler’s most famous image was made while he was employed during the 1850s by Harper’s Traveler’s Guide to daguerreotype views of the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Galena, Illinois. On a single day in August 1851, Hesler and his assistant, Joel E. Whitney, reportedly made eighty-five daguerreotype views in Minnesota, including a view of Minnehaha Falls. While on display in Hesler’s Chicago gallery, one of these views was purchased in 1854 by George Sumner as a gift for his brother, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. The senator in turn presented it to his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who used the image to draw inspiration for his narrative poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.” Both poem and photograph were wildly popular, and other photographers were attracted to the Falls and led Hesler to have his original daguerreotype copied to be distributed as paper prints. It is nice to remember that even at the beginning, photographs often moved around and were dependent on who saw them and how they could be used and re-used. Another thought is that looking again at old images can with a little digging re-connect them and us with unsuspected meaning. The link of wilderness and innocence marked much of the visual culture of pre-Civil War America. What sights have that effect now? Niagara Falls....slowly I turned....
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.