GUNNISON COUNTY, COLORADO
Gunnison County was once the largest in the State of Colorado, extending from the central Rockies to the Utah border, encompassing most of the lands remaining to the various Ute tribes. Mineral discoveries in the Elk and San Juan mountain ranges in the 1860s and early 1870s instigated one change after another to U.S. Government treaties with the Utes. In 1872, Felix Brunot and Otto Mears negotiating more modifications to the Ute treaties with Chief Ouray. In 1873, after the Ruffner expedition had completed a reconnaissance of the region, the Utes found themselves contained in yet smaller areas, known as the White River and Los Pinos agencies. But these treaty modifications opened the Gunnison country up to further exploration and settlement by the Caucasians.
As white civilization overwhelmed the American West, a variety of individuals and their trades supplanted those of the Native Americans. One such profession was that of the glass-plate photographer. This encroaching civilization was obsessed with detailed and immediate visual imagery; and glass-plate photographer was a medium that helped fulfill this obsession. Photographers, like journalists, were often determined to be the first to establish themselves in a new region. George E. Mellen was one of those photographers.
Just what did Mellen carry in his photographer’s wagon. Well, it’s difficult to say exactly; however, research has given us some details we can reasonably ascertain. For one, we know Mellen used the wet-collodion process to develop photographic images. This process involved glass-plates negatives, nitric acid, silver nitrate, and other chemicals; and, development of these negatives had to be accomplished in the dark using either a tent or a box. In this dark place, the negative was developed, fixed, washing, dried and varnished. The entire process required around twenty minutes from exposure to varnishing. Mellen’s photographic wagon carried, on average, three hundred pounds of equipment, entailing around forty various components. After witnessing William Jackson lose many irreplaceable images to the unpredictability of terrain and/or burros, Mellen chose the stability of a four-wheeled wagon. Even then, he slipped his glass-plate negatives into rawhide bags to prevent damage.