Images of America's West held up against today's reality.
New exhibit at MoMA juxtaposes idyllic early photographs against darker ones of today.
If one photo in a current Museum of Modern Art exhibition epitomizes the message of the show, it's Wells Moses Sawyer's 1897 portrait of two native Americans, "Chief Joseph and Nephew." Sitting side by side with equally rough-hewn faces are an older man (aka "Thunder Coming from the Water Up Over the Land") in colorful buckskin-and-feathers regalia and his nephew, Amos F. Wilkinson, wearing drab, ordinary garb (page 40). There you have it: the poetry and prose versions of the West, Thunder versus Amos, the romance and the reality. "Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West" (on view until June 8) so overflows with such contrasts, it might well be titled "Paradise and Paradise Lost."Skip to next paragraph
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The exhibition, divided into landscapes and portraits of Western archetypes, includes 138 images by 75 photographers, ranging from the dawn of photography in the 1850s through 2008. Big names, like Timothy O'Sullivan, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, and Cindy Sherman, are present.
But there's a division as sharp as the Continental Divide between their visions. The 19th-century photographer-explorers and the early 20th-century artsy pictorialists present a vision of the West as a new Eden, bursting with endless vistas, scenic grandeur, and boundless opportunity. Not only the majestic landscapes but the early inhabitants come straight from historian Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, which attributed American traits like self-reliance and rugged individualism to the westward migration. Pictures abound of American icons like scruffy miners, fearless cowboys, and plucky homesteaders – heroes all.
Then there are their contemporary, decidedly unheroic, counterparts: bikers, street hustlers, complacent suburbanites, would-be starlets, and hippies. Modern images of the landscape also slant toward decay. Suburban tract houses choke once-scenic valleys, while pools of toxic waste disfigure mining towns. In the "then" and "now" contrasts, "now" looks pretty noir.
Take the two Adamses. More than any other modern photographer, Ansel Adams bolstered the myth of the West as an unspoiled paradise. His view of "Mount Williamson, Sierra Nevada from Manzanar, California" (c. 1944) is an image of sublime beauty – a celestial pyramid lit by rays of ethereal light. In "Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver, Colorado" (1973), Robert Adams (no relation) captures another facet of the West. Next to a cranking oil pump – an inky calligraphic form on the snowy terrain – a plume of black smoke widens to almost fill the sky.
Heavy-handed polarities abound, often in pictures hung on facing walls. In "Watching the Dancers" (1906), Edward Curtis, the great mythologizer of indigenous dignity, glorifies four Hopi women in traditional dress as noble savages. Juxtaposed are Gary Winogrand's giddy women at a rodeo in "Fort Worth, Texas" (1974-77), who wear fringed and beaded leather halter-tops that barely cover their breasts.
Erwin E. Smith's "Mounting a Bronc" (circa 1910) pictures a cowboy hopping on a horse, ready to gallop across the plains, an image straight from "saddle-up" Western films. Contrasted with his dynamism is Justine Kurland's "Astride Mama Burro, Now Dead" (2007), showing a broken-down, old hobo, dry and dusty as the land, trudging along as a freight train recedes in the distance.