When the Army Corps of Engineers was formed in the early days of this nation, its primary role was exploration and mapmaking. Interestingly, in that role, the Corps used cultural tools – painting and photography – to help the federal government promote a habitable West for expansion and development.
After the Civil War, the country’s midsection grew along the Mississippi River, which had become a national highway for freight and people, increasing the importance of that region of the country. The Corps’ mission evolved to supporting navigation for commerce. Henry Bosse – a mapmaker in the service of the Corps of Engineers – played a role in that mission in the late 1800s.
Bosse shifted his mapmaking skills to those of a photographer. Photography was changing the “view” people had of structures and nature, and Bosse took up the new technology to see what it could do to help him do his job. Recently those of us in the 21st century have increased our interest in those early days of photography. One reason is that we’re at a similar turning point with new technology causing us to see things differently. I see the Bosse adoption of photography to chronicle the River in the late 19th century – and that of the Corps – as similar to applying new social capital tools of civic engagement in the 21st century. Just as photography expanded the ability to “view” the Mississippi River, today’s internet connectedness and collaboration tools afford us the opportunity to create a more inclusive vision of America’s great waterway. Bosse’s photos testify to a precedent for tapping an art form – and civic engagement is art not science – to engage the public on behalf of the Mississippi River.
Bosse’s – and other photographers’ – photos were used to expand the public’s understanding of rivers and other natural wonders because written descriptions taxed the credulity of readers. And that was before television. Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote at the time that outdoor photography was an agent of modernization, uniting a nation. The same has been said of social networking tools and the internet in recent times.
But the irony of Bosse’s photos is that while they were being produced, the importance of the Mississippi River for transportation was being eclipsed by railroad interests. Perhaps if Bosse had been able to overcome time and distance – as we have the opportunity to do today – the River’s importance to the nation might be altogether greater. It’s an interesting conundrum to consider.