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Title

: Bosse's Mighty Mississippi

Author

Christian A. Peterson

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
About five years ago, an album of more than 150 breathtaking photographs of the upper Mississippi River was discovered on the East Coast. Historians, curators, and collectors were initially unfamiliar with both the pictures in the album and their maker, Henry P. Bosse. Yet based on the visual and historical strength of the work, Bosse was soon recognized as a major 19th-century photographer. The Institute recently purchased one of his rich, blue-toned cyanotypes that features a Minnesota location.The album from which the Institute's photograph comes originally belonged to Major Alexander MacKenzie, a regional commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at the end of the 19th century. MacKenzie oversaw the Corps' first major navigational improvement of the upper Mississippi; its goal was to maintain the river at a minimum four-and-one-half-foot depth to allow low-water passage of steamboats between St. Louis and Minneapolis. This was achieved largely through dredging and through constructing wing dams, which narrowed the river and quickened its flow.MacKenzie turned to Henry Bosse (1844-1903), his chief draftsman, to document the Corps' decade-long project. Bosse had studied art and engineering in his native Germany before immigrating to the United States in 1865. A decade later he was working for the Corps out of Rock Island, Illinois, where he expertly illustrated important early detailed maps of the upper Mississippi. From 1883 to 1891, however, Bosse also used a camera to document the character of the river and its towns, and to capture the efforts of the Corps to shape, mold, and reroute the Mississippi.The Institute's new photograph Pine Bend, depicts a graceful curve in the river just north of Hastings, probably looking upriver and northwest, toward Inver Grove Heights. Judging from Corps' maps, Bosse photographed the scene from an overlook near Spring Lake, with the town of Pine Bend hidden off to the left. The river has changed so significantly since this image was made in 1891 that finding the same vantage point has proved impossible.Visible in the photograph are numerous wing dams, built perpendicular to the banks of the river (and now submerged). Despite their man-made origin, these dams integrate well into the bucolic landscape. Their natural material (rocks), slender design, and uneven spacing make them gentle accents to the river's shape. Using great hindsight, one may look on the Corps' wing dams as unintentional precedents of the earth art movement of the 1960s and 1970s.Pine Bend reveals Bosse as a photographer of great visual sophistication, clearly bringing his artistic training to bear and using a keen sense of photographic vision. In printing the photographs as an oval, he imparted a painterly appearance and a pictorial coherence to the image. And by lining the lower edge of the picture with trees he simultaneously reinforced the oval format and provided a solid, though richly textured, base for the composition. Dark areas, such as stands of trees, are skillfully played off against the light value of the river, and the horizon provides a well-placed divider between the open sky and the densely-packed earth below. Perhaps most striking is the picture's atmospheric perspective, skillfully realized through the scene's great depth.Bosse printed this and most of his photographs as cyanotypes, blue images yielded through a simple process. The cyanotype incorporates iron, instead of silver, as the light-sensitive compound, and is developed in plain water. In fact, it is the same process commonly used by architects to create blueprints. Photographers often used cyanotypes to proof their negatives in the field, but Bosse's exceptionally large and fine prints were undoubtedly made under more hospitable conditions.Subsequent to the purchase of Pine Bend, made possible by the Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund, two additional riverscapes by Bosse entered the Institute's permanent collection. Billy and Jody Weisman generously gave an image of Fort Madison, Iowa, and a close-up of wing dams elsewhere along the Mississippi. The acquisition of these three photographs, all by a newly discovered master photographer, significantly enhances the Institute's growing holdings of 19th-century photographs.Christian A. Peterson is Associate Curator of Photographs.Pine Bend is currently on view through August 24, 1997, in the exhibition "Photography: The Collection Grows, 1983-96," in the Harrison Photography Gallery.Related ImagesHenry P. Bosse
American, 1844-1903
Pine Bend
1891
Cyanotype
Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund
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Source: Christian A. Peterson, "Bosse's Mighty Mississippi: A newly discovered master photographer captured the river in rich, blue cyanotypes," <i>Arts</i> 20, no. 7 (July/August 1997): 8-9.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009