Taming the early Western wilderness - with a camera

America's great wilderness photographers were unwitting participants in a tragic irony.

Nineteenth-century American photography developed and moved westward with the American frontier. Between 1850 and 1890, wilderness photographers were often in the vanguard -- thus becoming a major instrument in the destruction of the virgin territory they were recording for posterity as their very fine work encouraged settlers to follow.

''Light in the West: American Photography and the American Frontier, 1850- 1890'' (PBS, Wednesday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is a fascinating evocation of both the frontier and the photographers who recorded it in that period. This unique documentary, written and directed by Ray Witlin and co-produced by the South Carolina ETV Network and West German and Swedish television, was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

''Light in the West'' admirably performs a dual function -- it entertains as it informs; it gives perspective and life to an art form that was hardly recognized as such in its own early period. Through the skillful use of contemporary film clips, antique stills, and animation, this unique documentary traces the early history of photography as it parallelled the growth of the West.

The narration is based upon authentic letters and journals of the now-classic photograpers of the period. There are superb samples of the work of such men as Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, Matthew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan, W.H. Jackson, Andrew Russell, William Soule, and John Hillers. In many cases, cinematographer-director Ray Witlin returns to the scene of the early wilderness photography and captures the same locations in breathtaking color. Their early panoramic Yosemite and Yellowstone daguerreotypes, glass plate prints, and stereoscopic photographs lured thousands of pioneers to that exotic, breathless West.

The documentary sometimes rambles, making excursions to the Civil War and the Indian wars, delving into the melodramatic personal lives of some of the old masters, but it always manages to get back on the trail whenever it simply focuses on the vintage work of the photographers.

Pioneering photographer Carleton Watkins verbalized the kind of total infatuation with their work of that early breed of photographers when he is quoted as saying: ''Making photographs still strikes me as a miracle. . . .'' Well, ''Light in the West'' is proof that, indeed, near-miraculous things happened, if proof other than simple examples of these artists' work is needed. In this era we are finally recognizing the photographer as an artist. This film not only makes the connection between photographs and photographers, it once and for all places the men and their work in the perspective of history.

Since this documentary may seem rather obscure to some programmers, better call your local PBS affiliate to make sure it is placed on the schedule. It is a public television treat not to be missed.

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