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Images of America's West held up against today's reality.

New exhibit at MoMA juxtaposes idyllic early photographs against darker ones of today.

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In "U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon" (1973), Stephen Shore juxtaposes real and ideal, showing a hyper-sublime image of the golden West on a roadside billboard, which is planted on the actual fenced-off landscape (see page 39).

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Philip-Lorca diCorcia stages dramatic color tableaux of drifters like "Major Tom" (1990-92), above, a hustler from Kansas City, lying sprawled atop John Lennon's star on the Avenue of the Stars in Hollywood. "Imagine," indeed, as Lennon sang, what dreams drove this youth West and what he found in their place. Katy Grannan's "Nicole, Crissy Field Parking Lot" (2006) shows another La-La Land denizen, a platinum blonde in a pinup pose casting a harsh shadow from her contorted form. Mascara runs in dark streaks like a whip lash down her neck. Grannan calls her subject a "new pioneer" and has said, "Many of us are still looking for whatever it is we believe the West offers – reinvention, escape."

Although it appears contemporary photographers highlight exclusively the failure of the promise of the West, not so, says Eva Respini, MoMA's associate curator of photography. Instead of viewing her subjects as pathetic, "Grannan sees inspiration in them," Ms. Respini says, as the photographer explores "the complex psychology of what happens when you go West to reinvent yourself and it doesn't go according to plan."

Joel Sternfeld sums up the downfall of the fantasy of the West in a striking landscape. "After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California" (1979) shows, in the background, a typical housing development. In the foreground it has fallen literally into ruin, a driveway and car washed away by a mudslide.

Which raises the question: Was the lure of the West as a land of infinite bounty always a mirage, a lovely illusion created by early photographers? Or was it the imprint of humanity – railroads, highways, parking lots, industrialization, factory farms, and suburban development – that transformed the Wild West?

"The nugget of the show is thinking about the West as an idea rather than as a place," says Respini, "and how photography has had such an influential role in how the image in our popular imagination has been formed."

The exhibition feels very timely. It reflects the present mood of decline based on economic fact as well as the "pick-yourself-up" mandate embodied in America's past "can-do" mentality that President Obama hopes to reinvigorate. While post-1960s photographers debunk the idealized image of the West, perhaps the romantic and realistic views are both necessary. As Respini says, "We need these myths to perpetuate the national identity of a young, entrepreneurial country breaking from the Old World."

In 1851, the editor Horace Greeley popularized the slogan, "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." Now that the country's grown up and the West no longer looks so enticing, it would seem our salad days, with their beckoning promise and potential, are vanished. As Joni Mitchell's lyrics put it: "Don't it always seem to go,/ That you don't know what you got till it's gone?/ They pave paradise and put up a parking lot."

Maybe what we think of as our hardy American identity was mostly a myth. But it's one that continues to inspire – and that we need now more than ever. Like the young boy watching his ideal hero ride off into the sunset in a classic 1953 Western, one wants to cry, "Shane, come back!"