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Dual canyon exhibitions illustrate gulf between painting and photography

Even though he and the other early photographers in this show served as hired lenses for geological expeditions, or timber, mining, railroad, power and real estate companies, their images were fairly direct portrayals of scenes. There's evidence that Carleton Watkins may have choreographed a hose spray in his shot of Malakoff Diggins, to make a more interesting image. But such tampering was unusual.

Unlike many contemporary photographers, early photographers weren't trying to say anything about art or the latest issues in photography, or to make ironic statements about Western development; they were simply using their cameras to record what was happening to the land. What they saw was profoundly optimistic. Carleton Watkins' views of mining operations in California and Nevada and Darius Kinsey's shots of logging in the Northwest proved that the West was habitable, productive, full of resources.

The anonymous image of a railroad track running across Utah's Sea of Salt to the horizon and the numerous photographs of people posing in front of the trees they're felling, boards they've milled or railroad bridges and tracks they've just installed proved that Americans--always the pragmatists--could find meaning, not to mention a fair amount of pride, in the landscape by making it useful.

This is hardly the mood of the show's more recent photographs. Their portrayals of suburbs, shopping malls, highways, weapons tests, clear-cutting, water use, tourists and industrial waste feature the human clutter of the new American West--where greed, stupidity and a host of other human frailties have turned the charming face of Eden into a grotesque mask of progress.

Hardly ideal terrain for those big, romantic views of the West that Ansel Adams produced. Yet that's a point that the frontier show's curator, Sandra Phillips, hopes viewers will notice. She says the exhibition is a reaction against the "unrealistic" and "escapist" standard of beauty that Adams helped to set for Western photography.

"I'm not saying Ansel Adams is the ogre of landscape photography," says Phillips, "because I think he's a complicated and interesting figure. But his late work was a little facile and full of rhetoric. It became an advertisement for wild land, without dealing with the realities of how the land was being used and changed."

However, that isn't to say that "Crossing the Frontier" comes rhetoric-free. In fact, its preachy message is writ large on the walls. Of a circa-1890 picture of lumber men standing in front of immense redwood planks, an explanatory wall caption asks: "Can we measure the loss of the 2,000-year-old trees from which the boards were sawn?"

Of Frank Gohlke's aerial image of a clear-cut patch of forest surrounded by vast woodlands felled by Mount St. Helens, we get: "Gohlke's ashen photograph subtly contrasts two kinds of disasters, those inflicted by nature and those committed by man."

Of Karen Halverson's shot of Lake Powell: "The lake is pretty. Yet with human presence came abuse and change."

Of David Hanson's colorful waste ponds in Colstrip, Montana:
"The coupling of beauty and social concern thus implicates the viewer and suggests that s/he is part of the problem." And of Skeet McAuley's verdant shot of the third green at Ventana Canyon: "The photographer's art draws us to linger in contemplation of paradise but perhaps also stimulates us to wonder at what cost such beauty was achieved and at what cost it will survive." The sermon here is one of Enviro-Fundamentalist guilt and Pogo resignation: Sinners repent, we have met the enemy and he is us. Phillips did not write the captions. They were initially prepared by Yale University when the show traveled there and were further modified by the Phoenix Art Museum. Maybe such twaddle means something to the audiences that these museums hope to attract. But it's hard to imagine that it could possibly bring viewers closer to understanding the complex weave of visual facts in Robert Adams' bleak suburban scenes, or Lee Friedlander's image of visitors to Mount Rushmore, or Joel Sternfeld's shot of a weather-beaten basketball hoop near Lake Powell.

Like the earliest pictures of the West--or the most recent ones from Mars--these and other images in the show contain layers of ambiguities that defy easy messages. Their facts are inadvertent, their traces of reality mysterious. Those small facts--not big slogans about the West--make this an exhibition worth seeing more than once.

"Canyonland Visions" and "Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present" continue through Sunday, September 28, in Phoenix Art Museum's Steele Gallery, 1625 North Central. For more details, see Art Exhibits listing in Thrills.

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