Our understanding and perceptions of frontier life come to us through early photographic efforts. The processes were complex, cumbersome, dangerous and expensive and it required perseverance to document historic individuals and events.
The majority of daguerreotype photos (named after Louis Daguerre who is credited with taking the first photo in 1838) were made on metal or glass with no negative from which to make copies. Most involved portraits made in studios where lighting conditions were optimal. They were monochromatic still-lifes; if color was desired it had to be added by hand.
Landscapes or action photos were rare due to the difficulty in getting equipment to outdoor settings or the need for subjects to be motionless for the period of time required to expose the shot.
Postmortem photos were common because of the seriousness of recording images for the ages. They were meant to capture the reality of everyday existence… the passing of individuals due to disease, childbirth, accident or violence. They were not whimsical records of everyday life, but a register of people who otherwise would be left unrecorded. Other than the most famous, however, their identities would be lost with the passage of time.
Besides Matthew Brady, perhaps the most influential photographer of the age was Edward Curtis. He would compile a definitive archive of the American Indian photographing, filming, and recording over eighty tribes, documenting a vanishing way of life. It would take him over thirty years to complete.
Nostalgia over these losses [the rugged individualism that defined both Indians and settlers] resulted in the Wild West shows, dime novels, books, and eventually motion pictures. They seldom reflected the harsh realities of life by either side. – excerpt from Palo Duro.