A pioneer photojournalist takes a candid look at life around Denver almost a hundred years ago
By the early 1880s a succession of traveling photographers had produced a stunning record of the American West, with its roughhewn cities and endless, astonishing landscapes. Their pictures decorated parlors and offices across the country—but not the printed page. Magazine and newspaper readers could see them only after they’d been translated into engravings.
In the middle of the eighties, however, the halftone process, which renders shades of gray in a tiny dot pattern, was refined to make it possible to incorporate photographic plates on the standard presses of books, magazines, and even newspapers. The considerable cost involved delayed widespread use by newspapers until the 189Os. But the way was opening for a new type of photographer, one with a reporter’s sense of news and a photographer’s technical and artistic skills—in today’s term, a photojournalist. Harry Hale Buckwalter was among the first of them.
Buckwalter’s passion for adventure, technology, and publicity lasted all his life. He left his native Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1884, when he was sixteen, to make his way west to Colorado. He quickly found work as a printer for the Denver Republican and also took a part-time job at a local photographic supply house, where he became interested in cameras and picture taking. He succeeded in making the transition from printer to reporter while refining his skills as a photographer.
In 1893 the Rocky Mountain News , preparing to initiate halftone printing, hired Buckwalter as Denver’s first newspaper photographer. He shot all the usual happenings around a city—parades, fires, and arrests at the city jail. Before long he was traveling across the state in search of stories. He earned the trust of Indian leaders and documented the Ute reservation with rare intimacy and clarity; frequent trips to mining towns yielded stark views of their mines, above- and belowground; the trains he rode tascinated and thrilled him, and they appear in many of his finest photographs.
Buckwalter rose to the position of assistant city editor of the News but then decided to work free-lance, selling his pictures to four Denver papers over the ensuing years. On at least one occasion he covered different stories for rival papers on the same weekend and was credited by both as “our photographer.”
He was always tinkering. Searching for a better way to capture movement with his camera, he made significant improvements in high-speed shutters, for which he sold patent rights. He took a brief interest in radiology and in 1896 made the first clinical X ray in the West, to help locate a bullet lodged near the heart of a local marshal. He also produced the first X ray admitted as evidence in a court of law and served as an expert witness.
By 1901 Buckwalter had discerned that the motion-picture industry was about to grow out of penny arcades and into serious entertainment, and he agreed to produce a series of Colorado travelogues for the pioneer movie producer William Selig, of Chicago’s Selig Polyscope Company. His movies, shown nationally, won acclaim for their splendid scenery and dramatic footage of speeding trains. But their creator was frustrated that they weren’t treated as feature films, so he arranged to have them shown at the biggest theater available—outdoors at Denver’s City Park. The screenings were a sensation. Buckwalter produced at least fifty films before 1910, when Selig migrated to Hollywood with the rest of the movie business. Turning to yet another technology, Buckwalter became one of the region’s first radio broadcasters in the 1920s.
After his death in 1930 his widow donated his glass-plate negatives to the Colorado Historical Society. The pictures give a delightful account of Western life around the turn of the century—an early report from the mile-high bureau.