Niagara Falls photography has a long history dating back almost to the invention of the photographic medium itself. Englishman Hugh Lee Pattinson is credited with producing the first photo of the falls in 1840: a panoramic daguerreotype with a figure (widely believed to be the photographer himself) surveying the misty flow of the rapids from a vantage point in the foreground.
Since then Niagara Falls photography has become assimilated into a North American artistic canon that was first established by landscape painters depicting the falls some decades earlier. As humans we clearly enjoy reminding ourselves from time to time that, no matter how much we may attempt to tame and subdue the natural world, nature still has the upper hand. The astonishing power of the water flowing over Niagara Falls combines the threat of total annihilation with a giddying glimpse of the sublime. It really doesn’t get much more exciting than that.
Indeed, as the most powerful waterfall in North American, and long famed for its natural beauty, it’s hardly surprising that Niagara Falls has long proved such an alluring subject for photographers. In fact, over the years the by now well-established niche of Niagara Falls photography has developed a number of sub-genres all of its own. For example, winter would not be complete without a view of Niagara’s gushing cataracts arrested mid-flow by the freezing grip of a boreal cold snap. Meanwhile, in finer weather, the holy-grail of Niagara Falls photography remains the celestial arc of a rainbow emerging from its enchanting vapors.
Of course, we humans being what we are, some of us like to try our luck against the forces of nature. As a consequence, a few of the most iconic images from the long history of Niagara Falls photography depict daredevils (or, depending on your point of view, perhaps lunatics) crossing the falls by tightrope. Even – in one of the most famous photographs – with a second person riding piggyback.
Niagara’s raw power and beauty aside, the number of photographic depictions of the site is likely even greater due to the romantic significance that the falls have come to acquire over the years. However, beyond the obvious majesty and charm of the falls itself it’s unclear exactly why Niagara came to be considered the “honeymoon capital of the world.” Of course, in origin, this title may be largely self-proclaimed. Yet there’s no doubting that the falls remain one of the most popular destinations for newlyweds: indeed the town of Niagara Falls apparently issues 50,000 “honeymoon certificates” to just-hitched couples annually.
And with an untold number of photographers pointing their lenses in the direction of the magnificent cascade every year, this must surely make Niagara Falls one of the most photographed sites of natural beauty in the world. Even if, in many cases, the falls themselves merely serve as a romantic backdrop for the real subject of the photo: loved-up newlyweds.
The love doesn’t always last though. And even Niagara’s beauty has faded over the years. Well, not so much the beauty of the falls itself – the rush of water over rock remains as enchanting and awe-inspiring as ever. Rather, the framing of the falls has come to detract from the picture. Largely due to the gross disregard for the environment displayed by developers on both the American and Canadian banks of the Niagara River.
Indeed, viewing Niagara Falls photography from over 100 years ago, the contrast with the falls as it is today is really quite striking. Once it must once have been truly breathtaking to come across this imposing testament to nature’s supremacy in the midst of such a wild and unspoiled landscape. Today, Niagara is a much sorrier sight, its dignity tarnished by the worst excesses of the tourism and wedding industries.
This feeling of disappointment was famously documented in Alec Soth’s 2005 photographic project, Niagara. Soth photographed newlyweds against a background of cheap love motels and cracked sidewalks, offering us a glimpse of the sorrowful reality behind the romantic myths peddled by most Niagara Falls photography. And throughout the book, Niagara’s thunderous cascade rages ominously in the background.
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