Visual Arts

Western Union

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.

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.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow