A recent discovery by Ethelind Wright at the University of Southern Maine has revealed that William Bradford’s ambition to make use of the lantern-slide versions of the Arctic views made under his supervision by Dunmore and Critcherson dates back much earlier than any of us working on the exhibit had realized. We’d always assumed that the photographs were first used by Bradford as “view books” for painting commissions, then as the basis of the book The Arctic Regions, and only later projected as part of Bradford’s lectures. Ms. Wright’s discovery, however, proves that Bradford and Hayes had, not long after their voyage and well before Bradford’s success in London, contemplated bringing them out in a book entitled “The Arctic Album,” which was to be published by the Boston firm of Fields, Osgood & Company. An early notice about this proposed book, which expressed the view that it would be expensive and not perhaps very wide in its appeal, appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune on November 22, 1869, and noted that “The Arctic Album by J.J. [sic] Hayes and William Bradford, will have but a limited sale … that [it] will be wholly unique, having for illustrations photographs from nature in that frigid region, no one can doubt.” Fields and Osgood were known for their use of the “heliotype” process, an early means of making photomechanical plates that preceded the photogravure system, and so they would have been capable of producing just such a book, but apparently either the cost or the fear of low sales led to the project’s cancellation, as nothing further is heard of it.
Thanks to another discovery by Ms Wright, however, we can see that Bradford, stymied in his efforts to use the photographs in a book, came up with the idea of a photographic recital using them as lantern slides at a very early date; according to a January 1870 item in the New York Herald-Tribune,
“Mr. William Bradford has turned his Summer visit to the Arctic regions to account in a different way from that at first intended. Instead of putting the photographs taken from his steamer and under his direction into a volume, as was at first proposed, he has utilized them by an exhibition with the stereopticon. The exhibition has made a hit at once, and is drawing crowded houses. About seventy-five of the pictures are shown in an evening, with a variety including Greenland villages, Norse ruins, lonely seas of ice, curiosities of glacier structure and the architecture of the iceberg, and the daily life of Esquimaux, magnified by the lens of the big magic-lantern to proportions surpassing those of the Patagonians of fable. Plato as well as Pegasus has been put into harness to describe the pictures, in the person of the Rev. D.A. Wasson, the philosopher, who is chosen to deliver the accompanying lecture not because of the chilling characteristics of his style, but because he once went with Mr. Bradford on this northern trip. The business of filling the ears of an audience who come to entertain themselves through the eyes cannot be very congenial to Mr. Wasson’s tastes, but he strives manfully to do the task well.”
This was the Reverend David A. Wasson, who besides being an early disciple of Transcendentalism was a popular lecturer at venues such as the Salem Lyceum; he had been with Bradford in 1864, and attributed his recovered health to the bracing Arctic air. And, despite the praise heaped on his performances by the Tribune, at least one biographer of Wasson describes them — the first, in any case — as not being very successful:
“During his Arctic expedition Bradford took a number of stereopticon-views from icebergs and other indigenous scenery with the intention of exhibiting them in public on his return. This he finally did, more as a private celebration than with a hope of making money from it, and requested Wasson to assist him by giving an oral explanation of the pictures. Wasson wanted to say, “That is not my business,” but he felt under great obligation to Mr. Bradford for the partial recovery of his strength, and did not like to refuse. He had no conception however of what was in store for him. He sent to Bradford for a list of the different views and prepared an address suitable for the occasion; but when the performance took place Bradford either forgot this or lost his presence of mind, for he exhibited the pictures without order or regularity, so that Wasson soon became confused and was able to give but a very poor account of them. This affair was the more vexatious because it was quite impossible to give any explanation of it.”
It’s fascinating to realize that Bradford’s concept for The Arctic Regions in fact predated his first lantern exhibition, and that both predated any later recitals at which Bradford himself — perhaps not entirely thrilled with the Rev. Wasson’s capacities — gave the lecture.