Aaah, the unspoiled West: Big space. Big light. Big view. Big lure for the millions who yearly go searching for the serenity and wilderness behind this popular yet fading image.
For the most part, it is the image featured in Phoenix Art Museum's "Canyonland Visions," a show highlighting artists' portrayals over the past 150 years of beautiful canyons along the Colorado Plateau. But the museum's simultaneous showing of "Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West, 1849 to the Present" makes plain that there's another, grittier outlook: one that shows the West being won--its rivers dammed, its timber logged, its lands drilled, mined, ranched, farmed and settled. This is the double vision that artists--particularly photographers--have had of the Western landscape. Wavering between awe and analysis, it portrays the beauty of Eden one moment, and scrutinizes what Americans have done to louse it up the next.
The 117 images in "Canyonland"--organized by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas--include 46 rarely seen watercolors that the Prussian jack-of-all-trades Heinrich Msllhausen produced in the late 1850s traveling with the Lieutenant Joseph Ives expedition along the Colorado River. The show features photographs by prominent lensmen who accompanied later 19th-century expeditions, as well as a selection of pictures by well-known 20th-century photographers.
"Crossing the Frontier"--assembled by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art--is even more wide-ranging. Among its more than 200 images are some rare historical shots of mining, boom towns, logging, railroad construction, ranching, dam building, farming, military testing and cities being built. Plenty of recent shots would seem to score points against history and seize the moral high ground in ongoing debates about Western development.
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Up until fairly recently, the kinds of scenic wonders in "Canyonland Visions" were the preferred view of the West. For one thing, the tonal richness and range of 19th- and early 20th-century black-and-white photographs were an ideal match for the landscape's sweeping geologic detail and beauty. For another, images of Western grandeur suited America's outlook about itself and its land. The early pictures in these shows did more than merely document scenery. They advertised the vast potential of the frontier.
In many respects, bringing back pictures of the West was the 19th-century equivalent of getting pictures from Mars. "We tend to forget what an enormous undertaking it was," says Jeremy Rowe, a Valley collector of 19th- and early 20th-century photographs and an expert in early photographic processes. "Since most of the early survey pictures were taken before train lines extended throughout the West--in fact, part of the purpose of some of those surveys was to scout good train routes--overland travel was usually by horse, mule and wagon. It took weeks and months just getting there."
Once there, photographers tended to stay a while. Timothy O'Sullivan spent about two years photographing on the trail with the King expedition after the Civil War. Unlike today, field work in the 19th century required photographers to carry all of the equipment necessary for both shooting and processing images.
"Typically, that meant bringing along a dark tent that was large enough to work in and hold all of the processing equipment," says Rowe. "They had to carry tripods, a camera, a variety of lenses. And if they were using different-sized negatives, they had to have different cameras for each. They also had to bring the chemicals and tanks for coating the negatives." These negatives weren't the small strips of film in use today. They were plates of glass that had to be covered in the field with a sticky, photo-sensitive solution. The wet plates had to be shot before they dried, and processed before too much dust settled on them--a perpetual struggle in the often hot and arid West.
And because there were no photographic enlargements at the time, the plates had to be the same size as the desired picture. "The 20-by-24-inch sheets of glass plates used by many of the landscape photographers were awfully heavy," says Rowe. "A burro or donkey could probably carry in the neighborhood of maybe 40 to 50 plates. But there's quite a bit of literature from expeditions about burros stumbling and falling, losing weeks of work." Little wonder that the Ives expedition opted to take along the painter Msllhausen, rather than a photographer.
Although paintings were far easier to make on the trail, they didn't necessarily convey a more accurate sense of what the trail looked like. In fact, as documentation, they were limited by pictorial conventions and that slippery thing called artistic interpretation--factors that took a while to develop in landscape photography.
The weaknesses of Msllhausen's pictures detail why cameras became the preferred tool for documenting the West. Msllhausen was a plodding draftsman, with little knack for giving natural spaces a two-dimensional vitality. His figures were clumsy. And he turned land forms into atmospheric blobs which conveyed no convincing sense of scale, light or detail.
The early photographs in these shows are far crisper by comparison; they're chock-full of the kind of detail that Msllhausen's paintings lack. And they could easily be reproduced for the armchair tourists of the East, giving them not just artists' impressions of the landscape, but the very shadows it cast. Photographs were quickly seen as proof that a place truly existed and evidence that an event had occurred. That sense of reality and proof is what's so riveting about the early pictures in "Crossing the Frontier." The factuality of Timothy O'Sullivan's 1871 picture of a worn rock beside an empty bottle and a tin can is exactly that of recent images of the rover and rocks on Mars.
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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