The California gold rush was the first broadly significant event in American history to be documented in any substantial depth by photography. After gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, thousands made the journey to California. Daguerreotypists too made their way west, not in search of gold, but to capitalize on the ready market of potential customers. Establishing studios in the larger cities, some ventured into the gold fields in photographically outfitted wagons.
This exhibition provides a critical look at this historic event through the lens of the daguerreotype camera. In San Francisco and Sacramento, urban panoramas, street views, and studio portraits of miners were made. Outside these cities, gold towns were established and abandoned around gold strikes. Mining technology transformed the landscape, progressing from an individual with a pick, pan, and shovel; to groups with “rockers,” “long toms,” and sluices; to large companies, often funded by investors, engaged in hydraulic and riverbed mining.
Gold rush daguerreotypes provide an extraordinary glimpse into the transformation of the American West: the evolution of mining technology, the diversity of nationalities and races, the growth of cities and towns, and the people who participated in these activities—while revealing a high level of technical and artistic accomplishment.