Art and Money Teamed Up In the Shooting of the West

Photography and the American West grew up together. French painter Louis J. M. Daguerre's invention of a reliable, practical technique for photography was announced in 1839; the discovery of gold in California was announced in 1848. Occurring almost simultaneously, the two events led to good art as well as good business.

A thoughtful traveling exhibition, "Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present," shows how photography has recorded, helped to shape, and more recently criticized the ways in which people have used the American West.

From its earliest beginnings, landscape photography in California and other Western states often had what we now recognize as high artistic quality. But for all of our idealism about America as a new Eden, it was the lure of gold that first brought massive settlement to the Far West. The city of San Francisco was virtually created by the gold rush.

For the most understandable of reasons, much of the best early photography of the Western landscape was commissioned to attract investors, settlers, or tourists. Before World War II and the rise of ecological awareness, photographers routinely portrayed the West as something that had been created so that some people could get rich.

Railroads, mining and lumber companies, real-estate promoters, and oil companies all wanted promotional pictures. The railroads bought photographs of their trains, tracks, and other physical assets. But they also purchased romantic depictions of nature in its seemingly virginal beauty, to attract well-to-do travelers from the East and the Midwest.

Darius Kinsey, who had outstanding skills but in many ways was a typical early photographer of the West, recorded a superb visual history of logging in the Seattle area. Like many others, he tried to meet the needs of business while expressing his own artistic tendencies.

Mr. Kinsey began his career, which spanned the half-century from 1890 to 1940, before photography had won acceptance as an art medium. In his time and place and social setting, it would have seemed pretentious to put himself forward as an artist.

He therefore presented himself as a first-class technician, happy to earn a good living from work he found congenial. Nevertheless, it was clear to his contemporaries that he took enormous pains over the aesthetic as well as the documentary value of his photographs.

Out in the woods, he was careful to select exactly the right angle of view, and would often exasperate those around him by waiting for hours until he had exactly the lighting conditions that he wanted.

NOT all early photographers of the West embraced their assignments as wholeheartedly as Kinsey did. The later work of Carleton E. Watkins, who was commissioned by mining companies for almost his entire career, appears to suggest that he had second thoughts about mining on an industrial scale.

His heart seems to have been with the individual gold-seekers of 1849 who were so quickly displaced by rich corporations. From today's ecological viewpoint, and perhaps from Mr. Watkins's as well, it was deplorable that relatively innocuous gold-mining techniques soon gave way to hydraulic mining, which was more profitable but also more destructive to the land and dangerous for the worker.

Whether early photographers agreed with the prevalent view that the West was a virgin land needing nothing so much as optimism and investment, their work had to be paid for, and in the beginning it was business and government that had the money.

Since World War II, however, many American photographers have been able to support themselves by teaching. Bringing photography into the context of modern art has encouraged new ideas about form as well as content. It has also brought photographers into a cultural milieu in which experiment and criticism are more prevalent than chamber-of-commerce boosterism.

When David T. Hanson shows us a vast pool of toxic waste in Montana, he does it from above. So many of us travel by air that Hanson's photograph may be seen as little more than the use of a peculiarly 20th-century viewpoint to record the damage done by industrial greed.

Seen in another way, the photograph also refers to the abstract expressionist paintings of Jackson Pollock, who spread his canvas on the floor and stood high above it. Although Hanson depicts toxic waste, his ecological warning - if that is what it is - echoes the charm of Pollock's fluid, informal painting style.

Hanson is far from alone in finding a new kind of beauty in the polluted landscape. Richard Misrach, who makes exquisite photographs of the Southwest, has written: "The human struggle, the successes and failures, the use and abuse, both noble and foolish, are readily apparent in the desert. Symbols and relationships seem to arise that stand for the human condition itself. It is a simple, if almost incomprehensible, equation: The world is as terrible as it is beautiful, but when you look more closely, it is as beautiful as it is terrible. We must maintain constant vigilance, to protect the world from ourselves, and to embrace the world as it exists."

* 'Crossing the Frontier' will be seen in San Francisco through Jan. 28, 1997. The show then travels to the Yale University Art Gallery (April 11 to June 8), the Phoenix Art Museum (July 12 to Sept. 27), and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (Feb. 11 to April 3, 1998).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.