Editor's note: The Peabody Essex Museum provided source material to Resource Library for the following article and essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Peabody Essex Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Yachting Photography of Willard B. Jackson
May 20, 2006 - January 21, 2007
Photographer Willard Bramwell Jackson (18711940) could often be found motoring his sleek white powerboat, Alison, rapidly around a sailboat in the waters off Marblehead, Massachusetts. In his work, Jackson captured the many dimensions of yachting with meticulous artistry -- from graceful boat designs to a sporting life of outdoor exhilaration, to the intimate affinity sailors share with their vessels at sea. Through January 21, 2007, the Peabody Essex Museum is featuring over 50 works from the museum's major collection of vintage photographs in the exhibition The Yachting Photography of Willard B. Jackson. Most of the photographs in the exhibition, some measuring 25 by 30 inches, were created from large-format glass-plate negatives, resulting in images of exceptional detail and richness.
"Jackson was a highly capable photographer who was also extremely knowledgeable about the boats he chose to shoot," said Daniel Finamore, the Russell W. Knight Curator of Maritime Art and History at the Peabody Essex Museum. "As a result, his photographs have great depth and tonality, while also emphasizing the finest and most engaging attributes of his boats."
Willard B. Jackson began working shortly after the introduction of dry-plate emulsion, which allowed photographic exposures to be measured in fractions of seconds instead of minutes-an essential development for a photographer of fast-moving yachts. He constructed most of his compositions from the platform of his own vessel, controlling the apparent motion of boat, water, and air. He adapted his photographic technique for the special requirements of the marine environment by manipulating reflections and contrasts, often backlighting sails to create the dynamic, rich photographs on view in the exhibition.
Jackson worked from 1898 to1937, the apex of competitive yachting and leisure boating in America. While he specialized in photographing great sailing yachts such as the famous designs of Edward Burgess, B. B. Crowninshield, and L. Francis Herreshoff, Jackson also trained his lens on motorized craft and speedboats, elegant pleasure cruisers, and the occasional working schooner. Additionally, Jackson's landscapes capture the narrow streets and colonial homes of old Marblehead, with a harbor dominated by elegant Gilded Age yacht clubs.
The Yachting Photography of Willard B. Jackson is accompanied by the publication of the first book on Jackson's work, featuring 100 prints with commentary by Matt Murphy and an introductory biography of Jackson by Daniel Finamore. The book was released by Commonwealth Editions in May 2006.
(above: Steam yacht Avenal, 1900, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Marblehead, Massachusetts. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978)
(above: Sailing dory Carratus in Marblehead harbor, 1932, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Marblehead, Massachusetts. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Q class yachts Dorothy Q and Little Rhody II in Salem Sound, 1907, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Off Salem, Massachusetts. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Eleanor, 1907, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978. )
(above: Sloop yacht Lady, 1909, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978. )
(above: Lady + Sally X, 1905, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Schooner yacht Malay, 1929, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Raceabout Start off Marblehead Neck, 1901, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Marblehead, Massachusetts. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Schooner yacht Resolute, 1926, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Tilly VI, Wannsee, Gluckauf IV (The German Contestants for the Roosevelt Cup), 1906, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Marblehead, Massachusetts. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: J boat Vanitie, 1929, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: Sonder class yacht Wolf, 1909, Willard B. Jackson. Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
(above: J boat Yankee, 1930, Willard B. Jackson.
Gelatin silver print. Gift of Alison H. Jackson, 1978.)
Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 11, 2006 with the permission of the Peabody Essex Museum and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Peabody Essex Museum directly.
The Yachting Photography of Willard B. Jackson
By Daniel Finamore
In a scene repeated thousands of times during the heyday of American yachting, a sleek white launch motored rapidly around a sailboat in the waters off Marblehead, Massachusetts. One indication of the boat's specialized purpose was the launch's unusual cockpit cover -- an elevated canvas tarp that protected the forward interior from direct sunlight, partially obscuring the helmsman's view. More distinctive, however, was the odd shape jutting from the cockpit in a precarious vertical fashion. Local sailors knew this to be an enormous bellows camera mounted on a tripod, with stooped torso and legs protruding from under a black tarp at the rear.
Almost as ubiquitous as a class race on a July Saturday was the presence of Willard Jackson photographing boats, particularly around the region's yachting capital in Marblehead. Any size or type of boat could become the focus of his lens, from tiny Swampscott dories owned by his neighbors to the smoke-belching steam yachts that belonged to Wall Street moguls.
Jackson was born in Boston in 1871 and raised for the most part a few miles north, in Salem. Willard's father, Henry Bramwell Jackson, had emigrated from England and made his career representing Jessop & Sons, a steel company based in Sheffield, England, as manager for American sales. Willard's mother, Geraldine (Gardner), had grown up in Bristol, Rhode Island, in a family that was acquainted with Nathanael Herreshoff and others of the yacht-designing clan.
This milieu undoubtedly had an impact on Willard's choice of lifestyle and professional pursuits. As a willful teenager he decided to stay in Marblehead, where his family summered, and board in the house of some friends. Whether he was seeking something specific in the rock-strewn harbor town, or simply declaring his independence, the decision proved fateful: he was to reside in Marblehead for the rest of his life. By twenty-seven he had joined his father at Jessop as a regional sales agent, but his true passion was photographing traditional, progressive, and experimental marine architecture.
The artist nurtured his innate sensibilities for marine photography through an affinity for sailing. Although his interests developed at an early age, the area yacht clubs at the time were oriented toward large and expensive boats. Marblehead's Eastern Yacht Club didn't recognize boats as yachts if they were less than thirty feet long, and opportunities to race smaller boats were infrequent. In 1887, at sixteen, Jackson joined other "Headers" (local residents of the town) and summer residents to found the Pleon Yacht Club. Though there were no age restrictions, many founders were young, like Jackson, and the organization quickly evolved into and remains a club specifically for junior sailing. 
Jackson worked from 1898 to 1937, the apogee of competitive yachting and leisure boating in America. He photographed the creations of Burgess and Herreshoff, and racing machines by Boardman, Cox & Stevens, and Fife -- as well as cruising boats and smaller designs by Alden, Chamberlain, Crocker, and Crowninshield. The boats he shot were built in a hundred different yards and included famous names like America, Spray, and Resolute, but he also liked the knockabouts, sailing dories, and other small craft that rarely drew a photographer's attention.
During the first couple of years of the new century Jackson's young business had already blossomed and he was selling images to nationally distributed magazines. He was single, owned two boats, and actively fostered the sport of sailing as the Commodore of the Burgess Yacht Club and as its delegate to the Yacht Racing Association of Massachusetts.
Jackson never attempted to market his work to the general public, and only after eleven years of maintaining a professional log did he list himself in the town directory as a photographer, with a marine specialty.
For thirty-eight years Jackson kept a numerical listing of his pictures to identify his subjects, cross-referenced with a number and name written on the negative plate. His listing occasionally included commentary, indicating that he thought a work was "poor," "fair," "good," "best" in a series, or the accolade he reserved for only his most successful work, "fine." He also included occasional technical comments.
Personal and professional life
Jackson also took many personal photographs on smaller-format glass plate negatives. His favorite subjects were his nineteen-foot keel sloop, Lucile, and a young woman named Mary Williams Hathaway.
Willard and Mary were married at St. Michael's Church, Dorchester, in 1903. They moved directly to 48 Washington Street, Marblehead, a house made famous by a previous occupant Elbridge Gerry, a Revolutionary War patriot, Supreme Court justice, and United States vice president. A year later, their only child, Alison, was born. The family eventually purchased a house at 16 Pickett Street, which remained Jackson's home for the rest of his life.
Jackson maintained a fisherman's shanty on Front Street, near Fort Beach, as an office for his photography business and possibly his darkroom. It was adjacent to the Beachcomber's Club, a group of his friends who sailed Beachcomber or Alpha dories. His associates were the old salts -- those with ancestral associations with Marblehead who frequented rough-and-tumble fisherman's shacks rather than Federal-period mansions. They were the type of "Header" for whom the town is famous, but who live today only in legend. Known by his neighbors as a loner, Jackson's unrefined character was in sharp contrast to the beauty of his photographs. He lacked social graces. And while some thought him rude, others thought him "rather gruff and taciturn, yet not unfriendly." He was apparently a perfectionist. One neighbor noted that Jackson "knew his pictures were good," and while photographing a ship he was heard by another neighbor to chastise the captain on his imperfect rigging. 
A new chapter
Few of Jackson's letters and no diaries aside from his numerical photo journal survive. Although his photos were widely disseminated in print, the press paid no attention to the reticent man behind the lens. Many facets of Jackson's life remain undocumented and elusive, but perhaps the greatest unsolved mystery involves a lengthy hiatus in his photographic work. He took an average of 260 photographs annually from 1898 through 1911, when he put down his camera for the next thirteen years. Why did Jackson suspend his photography, and what did he do during the intervening time? By the outbreak of World War I, recreational sailing in America was in temporary decline and so, presumably, were opportunities for photographic commissions. It is more likely that business and personal events impeded his ability to spend time on the water and in the darkroom. By 1913, when the steel business thrived in anticipation of a European war, Willard had assumed his father's position as manager at Jessop Steel. 
Jackson's numerical log picks up again in 1925, beginning with the newly launched John Alden-designed Malabar VI. By this time the 1920s were in full swing and elegant yachts were the rage once more. Perhaps of more importance to Jackson, however, was that he had retired from the steel industry and now had time to pursue photography full time. Sadly, four years after he returned to marine photography, his wife, Mary, died at fifty-two. He took no photographs that year, noting only in his photo journal for 1928: "Ill all Summer, Mother died." Although Jackson's photo log closes at the end of 1936, he produced additional photographs at least into 1937. These were among the last photographs he took, though Jackson continued to list himself as a photographer until his death in 1940, at age seventy-two.
W. B. Jackson's personal technique
"Instantaneous" marine scenes had been possible by the early 1880s, when David Mason Little returned from Europe with new rapid dry-plate equipment and began photographing yachts and crashing surf.  The world of art photography was still enamored of the Pictorialist aesthetic, with its soft focus and vignetted borders. The Boston Camera Club, however, which approached photography strictly as a fine art, embraced members' crisp and exciting marine portraits. Jackson's interests were aligned with those of the sailing community, who wanted clear and detailed images conveying the elegance of a well-trimmed sailboat in competition.
Within just a few years, Jackson had developed a technique that combined specialized camera work in a difficult environment with sophisticated manipulation of exposures in his darkroom. Jackson created negatives with both subtle and broad ranges in emulsion density. His signature compositions appear deceptively straightforward, but often they are not so much portraits of boats as they are photos of people who sail.
Faster boats allowed Jackson to circle his subject and match the speed of a fast cruiser or racing yacht, emphasizing the sense of speed by capturing it clearly while the water remained blurred. With his camera mounted on a tripod in his open launch, Jackson would circle his subject to seek out her best attributes and to look for proper lighting and background. Backlit sails added considerable drama and highlighted the translucence of canvas, but often left decks and people in shadow and skies washed out.
Jackson's inability to control the lighting, background, or even distance from his race subjects presented artistic challenges not encountered in his yacht portraits, which were taken by appointment. Sometimes he shot from the race committee boat, leaving him powerless to reorient himself or his subjects in relation to the sun. Other times, he kept a seamanlike distance from the course, leaving the subjects less prominent. The more spontaneous approach often yielded sparkling water, shimmering decks, and a large field of view that set boats in context and heightened the dynamism of competition.
Jackson further manipulated his strong highlights and shadows in the darkroom using several different papers. Many of his final products were contact printed from his glass negatives, but he also enlarged some of them with no apparent loss of clarity to 25 by 30 inches for dramatic prints. He dodged and burned extensively to downplay dark areas and highlight less dense areas on his negatives, yielding unique effects. He printed the majority of his images full frame, cropping primarily in race scenes to reduce the sense of distance from his subjects. He was meticulous with his darkroom work, but unlike others of his generation, he never sandwiched negatives to introduce clouds or other elements. Jackson worked in an environment that provided ample opportunity to share techniques. Marblehead was awash with spectators during the big summer racing events, many of which were featured in illustrated reports by the East Coast press. Jackson's personal photo collection included yachting images by Thomas E. Marr of Boston and Frederick B. Litchman, a friend and fellow Header. Whether Jackson interacted with other photographers, his work maintained distinction.
In 1930, after taking only eleven shots during the sailing season, Jackson adopted five-by-seven-inch celluloid film. He had continued to use traditional glass plate negatives long after most photographers had moved to simpler and more versatile flexible negatives, and he undoubtedly appreciated the classic formality and atmosphere that his older method created. His first subject with film was, appropriately, the power launch Manatee rocketing at top speed. Jackson most likely continued to use a tripod, but supplies for a day's work were far lighter without the large box of silver nitrate-coated glass sheets.
Unfortunately, illness dampened what should have been an exciting moment of technical discovery. He took only nine photos with his new equipment before noting in his journal: "Ill remainder of Summer." Perhaps he was motivated to give up on glass plates to reduce labor, or perhaps he decided that the uniform density and clarity of celluloid film better served his purposes. Whatever the reason, in his final six years of work Jackson appears to have exchanged tonal depth and contrast for more interesting and varied skies.
During the 1930s, Jackson donated 171 photographs of Marblehead people and street and harbor scenes to the town historical society, and several photographs of unusual craft, such as Joshua Slocum's Spray, to PEM--but the bulk of Jackson's negatives and prints were preserved only through fateful coincidence. In 1942, two years after her father's death, Jackson's daughter, Alison, moved back to Marblehead, near where she had grown up. When a fire wrought serious damage to her house in the 1960s, family friend Russell Knight, helping her clean up, noticed boxes of her father's negatives and prints that had survived relatively undamaged. Knight, a PEM trustee, was well aware of the trove's historical and artistic importance. He eventually convinced Alison to send to PEM for preservation the negatives and more than 1,200 vintage prints that had been created by Jackson in his darkroom. The assemblage became a gift upon her death in 1978.
1 This essay draws heavily on research conducted by Jean Rees, who, as a volunteer in the Peabody Essex Museum Photography Department, has spent two decades chasing countless tenuous leads for information about this elusive man.
2 Recorded interview with Ray Bowden, June 5, 1986.
3 Fowle, Leonard. "Noting Its 75th: Founding of Pleon Y.C. Called Happy Accident." Boston Sunday Globe, June 17, 1962.
4 Burgess Yacht Club Annual, 1901.
5 Recorded interview with Ray Bowden, June 5, 1986; Russell W. Knight to Tony Peluso, April 22, 1986. Personal communication with Gerald Smith, Natalie Woods, Russell W. Knight, 1985-6. Peabody Essex Museum Photo Department files. See also A. J. Peluso, 'Heaven's Broad and Simple Sunshine: The Marblehead Marine Photographers," Maine Antiques Digest, August 1986, pp. 38-C.
6 It is possible that the elder Jackson was traveling for the company, opening a new steel office in Lockport, New York, but no corroborating documentation has been found. Photography Department files, Peabody Essex Museum.
7 Little, David Mason. Instantaneous Marine Studies Taken by David Mason Little. Cupples, Upham, and Company: Boston, 1883.
8 Catalogue of the Seventh Annual Competitive Exhibition by the Members of the Boston Camera Club, The Boston Camera Club, 1895. One member who created crisp marine views was Horace Latimer.
9 A photo album in the Marblehead Historical Society includes one photo by each artist. Marr's is dated 1901. Litchman was also a co-founder of the Pleon Yacht Club along with Jackson.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Colette Randall of the Peabody Essex Museum for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.