Henry Bosse

Sep 10, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Some promotions take place only after death. For many years, a number of large oval photographs of 19th century Engineer boats lay scattered around the headquarters of the Rock Island District Engineers. They were cyanotypes—looking more like blue-prints than photos. Many had already been pitched during periodic house cleanings.

Then in 1990, an antiquarian dealer on the East coast called Rock Island to find information on an album he had purchased, “Views of the Mississippi River,” by Henry Bosse, draftsman. The album had been the personal copy of Major Alexander Mackenzie, District Engineer at Rock Island from 1879 to 1895. Like all 19th century employees, Bosse had done a bit of everything: illustrated river charts, drew steamboat plans, sketched improvement scenes—and took photographs. His cyanotypes show the Corps of Engineers at work. There are photos of dredges, snag boats, steamers, and, in addition, scenes of small towns along the river, and rafts of white pine coming down to sawmills.

Ears perked up in the Rock Island District when they learned that the dealer had refused an offer of twenty thousand dollars, and taken the album to Sotheby's Auction House in New York, where, in the fall of 1990, it sold to a San Francisco art dealer for sixty-six thousand dollars. Its new owner estimated its actual value at six-hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

The Rock Island District quickly gathered the remaining Bosse cyanotypes and sent them out to be stabilized. They now hang at District headquarters, and a slide show on Bosse is a popular area program.

According to the curator of photography at the Smithsonian, Bosse's photographs "reveal the shift in American photography from romantic to industrial and geometric subjects." That, and the quality of the photography have promoted Bosse from an unassuming draftsman to one of the great 19th century photographers.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.