Alaska’s Oldest Photograph

One of the earliest photos taken of Alaska: an 1868 photo of Sitka by Eadweard Muybridge. (courtesy of the Alaska State Library)

Historic photos show early Alaska


The earliest photo in the Alaska state archives is from 1868, a year after the United States purchased Alaska from Russia.  The photo is a landscape of Sitka, and is one of many taken by Eadweard Muybridge, a photographer who was hired by the government to travel with a party inspecting Alaska’s military posts and harbors.

The oldest known photograph of Alaska, however, is not in the state archives. It is part of the University of California Berkeley’s Bancroft Library collection, and was taken by Charles Ryder, a photographer who traveled through Alaska two years prior, in 1866, as part of a Western Union expedition evaluating the possibility of a polar telegraph line.

Ryder’s earliest photo shows three people standing in front of a wooden building, possibly a store because of a sign on top. In the background, an impressive Alaskan mountain rises from the ocean where a sailing vessel sits.

Jim Simard, head of the Alaska State Library Historical Collection, notes it’s difficult to call anything the oldest, and an older photograph could turn up at any time.

“It seems almost certain to me in a Russian archive somewhere there’s some Russian photography that predates that stuff, though we’ve never seen it and that’s only speculation,” Simard says.

Early photography plays an important role as a record of Alaska’s history, Simard says, but he adds that many of the early photos are also simply good pictures.

“I’m also a photographer and I can’t help looking at these early photographs for their own quality. A lot of them are spectacularly beautiful…and especially in light of the evolving technology of the day,” Simard says.

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