"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.
"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.
After the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, native Americans were no longer considered a threat to expansionist fervor. Until 1930, ethnographic photographers scrambled up mesas and pueblos, recording "authentic" views of tribal peoples who, confined on reservations, were revered for their benign spirituality. Edward Curtis's 20-volume "The North American Indian," compiled over nearly three decades, preserved romanticized views of ancient ceremonies before they disappeared into cultural homogeneity.
A series of three photos shows how Curtis manipulated poses and costumes to replace messy reality. An undistinguished snapshot of Hopi women ("Water Carriers," c. 1904) in contemporary dress became a "high art" composition in "Loitering at the Spring" (1921). In the final version, the women wear traditional blankets that just happen to have socko graphic impact. Their hairdos are strikingly retro, and the figures are massed in sharp focus.
Modernism came to the West through Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Known for his decontextualizing strategies, in which a green pepper looks like a sensuous nude, Weston achieved more depth of field when he trained his camera on deserts. He lived on cheese and crackers, camping in a tent for the two years it took to cover 22,000 miles of bad roads and blowing sand. Despite the adverse conditions, he produced images of startling clarity.
Adams's sharply contrasting zones of light and shade are a tour de force of darkroom wizardry. His angular geometries, as in "Sunrise, Mount Tom" (1948), frame dramatic "big picture" views of the majestic West. An ardent environmentalist, Adams later joined with the Sierra Club to produce "battle books" that alerted the public to endangered wilderness areas.
Eliot Porter also used photography as a weapon in the ecology wars. His color photos of Glen Canyon, Utah, in "The Place No One Knew" (1963) recorded a vividly colored, sculpted sandstone canyon before it was inundated by a dam. His images are an elegy for a drowned canyon, doomed by hunger for hydroelectric power to air-condition Salt Lake City.
Dorothea Lange was another proselytizer, but for human rather than natural preservation. Her compassionate images of Dust Bowl refugees during the Depression stress social problems and the road to despair.
As the desert is increasingly urbanized and industrialized, a "New Topographic" school has sprouted. Since the 1970s, photographers like Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams have recorded the vernacular, human-altered landscape. In Baltz's views, even the framing timbers of a suburban tract house become an exquisite aesthetic object ("Night Construction, Reno," 1978).
In contrast, Adams's junkyard shots of unpicturesque scenes, like a road going nowhere ("Along Interstate 25, 1968-71") are antiheroes in the Western genre. Ansel Adams retouched skies to eliminate modern intrusions like jet trails. Robert Adams leaves telephone wires in full view - a nonjudgmental acceptance that reflects the epigraph by Loren Eiseley that closes Adams's book "The New West" (1974): "Nothing is lost, but it can never be again as it was."
*A catalog of the exhibit, published by the Whitney Museum and distributed by Harry N. Abrams Inc., is available.