Views of the West Filtered Through Lens of Photography
Exhibit reveals how images spurred early settlement, conservation efforts
"The West is America, only more so," historian Clyde Milner has said. But 150 years ago, the West was a big blank. "Great American Desert" was scrawled across maps of newly acquired Southwest territories. Photographers played an integral role in filling the blanks. Their images influenced our perceptions of the West - and of America - creating a mixture of fact and myth still around today.Skip to next paragraph
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"Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West," at the Whitney Museum of American Art through Sept. 22, illustrates how photographic books shaped opinion on the West for over a century. More than 300 photographs trace the evolving public consciousness about the West. From views of untouched wilderness ripe for development to a despoiled landscape ravaged by mankind, the legacy of desert photography is anything but blank.
The exhibition shows how political agendas framed views of the West. The mission of early photographers who accompanied federal surveyors and railroad engineers in the 1860s and '70s was to promote settlement. Their shots of topography documented geology as an untapped bonanza of mineral wealth.
A.J. Russell's "On the Mountains of the Green River, Smiths Buttes" (1968) was one-half of a dual panoramic shot. Two buttes gently frame the minute figure of a man, like a deity cupping humanity in a giant palm. To the rear, a broad river flows - evidence of bountiful water necessary to settle the area and operate the railroad. This encouraging image was printed in a boosterish book for the Union Pacific Railroad. The book omitted its companion shot, "Bitter Creek Valley," depicting an arid, forbidding landscape devoid of humanity, with steep cliffs sloping ominously downward. No wonder it didn't make the cut.
Many images echo the optimism of Horace Greeley's injunction, "Go West, young man" - a 19th-century equivalent of career advice to Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate" ("plastics"). Alexander Gardner produced, for the Kansas Pacific Railroad, panoramic vistas emphasizing the boundless horizontal expanse of the West, as if laying tracks on such terrain would be a cinch. The text under his shot of an unfamiliar flora, "Yucca Tree" (1867-68), stresses its utility (for making ropes and mattresses). When these documentarians saw a saguaro cactus, they didn't see a plant adapted to near-zero rainfall, but a potential water spigot and food source. To such explorers, emptiness was not threatening but beckoning, a vacuum to be filled by America's manifest destiny.
Transcending photodocumentation are images by Civil War photographer Timothy O'Sullivan. On 14 trips over eight years in his mule-drawn wagon or on a boat christened the "Picture," he hauled a cumbersome wet-plate camera. The intrepid shooter endured desert temperatures of 118 degrees and nearly starved in the Grand Canyon. O'Sullivan waited hours for the right light, which he captured in "Black Canyon, Colorado River, From Camp 8, Looking Above" (1871). Tipping the camera for maximum reflection, he made the Colorado River shine like polished metal in a classic hourglass composition. The water recedes in a triangular shape, on which rests an inverted triangle formed by canyon walls. A boat's mast links liquid and solid.