Tag Archives: photography

The Road to Comps Part 17: Art and the American West in the 19th Century: Photography

I have found it odd that the case has to be made to study photography and art as source material and not merely “visual aids.” The only think that is even more odd is that this case is relatively recent.

Print the Legend

The four books and one article in this little operating section tend to all say the same thing–photographs are important not because they are photographs, and not even because the subjects of the photographs, but because they represent a distinct moment in time of an ever-changing culture. The contextual culture of regional and temporal data are frozen in time just as the faces of early portraits. Each work provides its own examples of why this is an important shift in thinking about images.   As Martha Sandweiss points out in Print the Legend sometimes what isn’t photographed or what was photographed and then lost can reveal as much (if not more) about a certain moment in the past.  Sandweiss provides a solid foundation that scholars should use in reassessing their relationships with photographs. I believe this improved methodology will also easily cover other visual culture as well.  Print the Legend could easily be a history of technology work as it follows the exponential developments of photography across two generations (her investigation ends in the 1890s) which happens to parallel the development of America’s mythos regarding their newly acquired and explored territories. For my purposes, she provides the best answer for why, after a MA in American History I have shifted over to work with the Art Historians for my dissertation:

“A lingering bias in historical training teaches would-be historians to value the literary over the visual or material, and teaches them how to query, challenge, and interpret literary documents, while leaving them few analytical skills for the interpretation of visual records”

While looking back through some of the little work I have done with photography (only really starting in 2014) I did find a C-SPAN video of this very book, and it is worth the time you can devote to it:

A funny aside is that you can purchase this as a DVD or an MP3. The latter of which you can listen to Sandweiss describe the photographs, which leads one to believe they missed the point.

Print the Legend

Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evens is one of the earliest books (1990) to call for a shift in the understanding of photographs. It is one of those books that requires complete attention and an appropriate amount of pyschological working up to undertake. It is dense.

Reading American Photographs

Not in a bad way, but at times the theoretical asides (which I am certain Trachtenberg does not see as asides) get in the way of the point he wishes to drive home. My first run in with Trachtenberg was his first book about the Brooklyn Bridge. While reading this I went back and thumbed through some things in it on a hunch. Photographs does continue Trachtenberg’s thread of America as imagination. In fact in 1965 he called it “An America of the imagination.” In addition to starting the stone rolling on photography reassessment in history, Trachtenberg offers a short sentence that I am certain will come up for expansion in my future work:

“Thus O’Sullivan placed the survey camera among the instruments of practical science, allowing the history and meaning of the Western surveys (the conjunction of “pure” science and imperial economic enterprise) to reveal their contradictions” (289)

The remaining books in this section could be considered “popular” books each focusing on a single photographer as they managed to work their way through the new continental nation and new technologies in order to make names for themselves as photographers.

Meaningful Places

In Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth Century American West, Rachel McLean Sailer highlights that print making and mythmaking went hand in hand. Few of the landscapes are void of human life or activity, to the contrary many settlers used photographs of themselves in their new spaces as vindication for the success and progress of American culture. Photographs provided constant reassurance that people were indeed where they belonged. A sense of place for people who had left their cities or even countries in the case of foreign born immigrants was something that most settlers struggled to maintain, but photography, according to Sailer was instrumental in calming some of those unspoken fears.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis is another notch on Timothy Egan’s literary gun. I have personally read two other of his works: The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn. Egan doesn’t write books you can glean which is one of the reasons I enjoy assigning them. The book itself follows the drama of Curtis’ life as he moved across the West capturing moments that were fading away.  The story of forgotten  photographs rediscovered are as much the legend as Curtis’ “quixotic” quest to capture native life.  Which I think is captured better in this variant cover:

Shadow Catcher better cover

The renaissance of his work in the 1970s installed Curtis at the forefront of historical photography. Even as historians in the 80s attacked his work for being staged or “playing dress up.” Egan points out that Curtis heard these attacks during his life, and never denied it. His defense provides insight into his work and the importance of photography in the late 19th century: he wanted to represent the past, not document the present of the future.  His time in Oklahoma in the 1920s saw many of the natives already fully remodeled into Euro-American culture and his pace in his “race against time” hastened.  For Curtis himself, the 2001 documentary Coming to Light is an excellent way to start. I apologize for the ads in the linked video but it was the only site that had the full program to share. Here is a snippet. You can see the whole thing here.


Curtis was involved in the Harriman Expedition in 1899 which, at this planning stage, will be the final expedition in my dissertation. Curtis also employed the new technology of moving pictures after the turn of the century, which ties back into the final book of Eadward Muybridge.

River of Shadows

As with Sandweiss and others, the nature of photography in the American West also serves as a history of technology.  Nowhere in these readings (maybe even more broadly) is that more evident than in Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and teh the Technological Wild West. In fact, Muybridge’s life can be seen as a parallel with both the arc of the West and the rise of photography. He “invented” himself in western culture, photographed through the landscapes as did his contemporaries, and then made studies with the movement displayed in still photographs. His moving pictures were the legacy his family life never produced. Solnit describes Muybridge as a man who “split the second,” which had “as dramatic and far reaching [effect] as splitting the atom” (7). One reviewer did not care for this phrasing, but given the circumstances and the tenor of the book (and Muybridge’s life) I think it fits.

The final piece was an article in the Art Bulletin in December 2003 highlighting Timothy O’Sullivan as a survey photographer. Trachtenberg mentioned O’Sullivan in the quote above as the person who brought photography into the came of scientific instruments. Robin E. Kelsey’s article “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74” look at the photographs as a new form of graphic representation. That is a more precise way of expressing the landscapes, forms, materials, etc that the survey encountered.  “Pictorial Rhetoric” became the tool for people like Ferdinand Hayden in order to increase (or sustain) federal appropriations for their continued surveys. One of the mor interesting portions of the articles many photographs is the  sort of “line of custody” we see in O’Sullivan’s (i.e. The Survey’s) photographs:

From Robin E. Kelsey, "Viewing the Archive: Timothy O'Sullivan's Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74." Art Bulletin 65 (Dec 2003), pp. 702-723
From Robin E. Kelsey, “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74.” Art Bulletin 65 (Dec 2003), pp. 702-723

A final thought on this reframing of photography as primary sources is stirred by the author byline in Kelsey’s article. “He is preparing a book on Survey photography.” If the article is any indication it will be an excellent book. I wonder though, if the pendulum is swinging too far into the study of photographs as primary sources that they will become more detached from their created context as they become topics or study. Something like Survey photographs is an excellent topic to undertake, but at the time the photographs, as graphic representations, were another means of transferring information and raising interest in the surveys, government exploration, and the American West as construed by the myth-makers. I think it shows the power of photographs to evoke audience interest and emotion that no popular book has been written on the Survey graph or map making or their field reports as entities. Journals have been reprinted and photos as well, but I think it will a long time before the similarities and differences between visual and literary will ever be hammered out.

The Grand Landscape Pt. 2: Thomas Moran

The second part of the grandscape troupe (of which there are more than two, really) features Thomas Moran. Moran was born in England but became one of the most identifiable and popular members of the Hudson River School. He started as an engraver but found it tedious, worked in watercolor, and later produced some oils on the same scale as the ones we saw with on the Albert Bierstadt post. He shared a studio with his marine artist brother Edward and became an illustrator for the popular magazine Scribner’s Monthly. 

Thomas Moran February 12, 1837-August 25, 1926

 Moran is one of those artists that resound with me for reasons beyond, but still directly related to, his art. Moran was part of Ferdinand Hayden’s Yellowstone Expedition for the USGS. Geology and the History of Science and expeditions are one of the reasons I have become so involved in and with art of the American West. Having spent my honeymoon in Yellowstone, Moran’s rendering of places I have seen make it even more fun. As well as understanding that he was first and foremost an artist, you must understand how essential his works were in helping establish Yellowstone as the national park we all know and love today.

The Golden Gate

 The images that Moran painted were not true representation of nature, but an amalgam of the best of what he had seen. He also had the added benefit of traveling and working with the expedition’s photographer William Henry Jackson. Essentially a realist with romantic tendencies Moran never painted a true transcription of Yellowstone, but moved the scene and stirred the emotions. The artist and the photographer worked together, the photographs setting the realism and the painting and color setting the romantic tone that sold the idea of the park to congress.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (6’x10′) 

 Moran was highly influenced by an earlier English painter J.M.W. Turner. Turner’s use of light is echoed in many of Moran’s oils if not his watercolors. Luckily Moran stopped just short of the full dissolution into pure light that marked Turner’s later work.

Joseph Mallord William Turner April/May 1775-December 19, 1851

The Dogona and San Giorgio Magiore  Turner-1834

Norham Castle at Sunrise Turner-1835

Rain, Steam, and Speed-Turner 1844

You can see how Moran captured Turner’s view of the importance of light without dissolving his paintings into just light. A useful adjustment for someone that was working with a western expedition trying to sell the west to congress for parks and to the public for tourism. Incidentally, there is a new biopic coming out this year (2014) that follows Turner’s turn to painting the purity of light. I was looking forward to it before I knew that Moran was influenced by Turner, now I think it might be even better.

Back to Moran. The photography and the art proved that the boiling mudpots, the geyers, the kaleidoscope of colors in the hot springs and mineral waters were far more than just the tall tales of the mountain men and trappers. In addition to helping establish the park Moran was more successful than Bierstadt at acquiring the coveted governmental patronage. Why did Moran succeed where Bierstadt floundered? They had both been on expeditions, and Moran did his best work when he was on his own, but it was the type of expedition that he went on that gave him a more trusted authority. Moran had been an expedition member on a USGS expedition, that is he was a commissioned United States Geological Survey Artist. Most of his work at one time or another hung in the Department of the Interior of the United States and he sold 2 for $10,000. 
Grand Canyon of Arizona from Hermit Rim Road

Shoshone Falls on the Snake

This is one of my favorite Moran’s, and one of the few I have gotten to see in person. I have included this as it is displayed in the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, OK. Go there if you ever get a chance, it is worth the diversion from whatever you are doing near there. This is how they were originally displayed with a place to sit and contemplate the immensity of it all as well as soak up the details. Another perspective on visiting the Gilcrease and the source of these images here.

Shoshone Falls on the Snake River*
*This is a cropped image. Open it in a new tab if you can to get a better detail of it. The original is huge and this photo does it little justice, but savor the view because this part of the Snake River has been dammed and these falls no longer do so.

One of the most striking images to come out of the Rocky Mountains was direct evidence that God was on the side of, and heartily approved of, Manifest Destiny. The Mount of the Holy Cross was thought to be only myth and legend and had never ben captured on canvas or film. As the snow melts natural crevasses in the side of the mountain that, it must be noted, was devilishly tricky to get to, was a blazing  (literally) snow white cross in the side of the mountain. Both Moran and Jackson caught it.

Mount of the Holy Cross 
Mount of the Holy Cross 

The images are striking, and definitely prove to those hearty enough to make the trek that God is still on your side. In fact he has been waiting for you out West. 
Mount of the Holy Cross Photograph by William Henry Jackson

 If there was any doubt that the cross existed in physical form and not just in the mind of a romantic landscape painter the expedition’s photographer William Henry Jackson’s handiwork put those to rest. In stark black and white he captured God’s giant thumbs up to westward expansion. It was this type of pairing–the photograph and the artwork–that sold the area to those holding the pursestrings in Washington.

As I mentioned before Moran did his most striking work when he was on his own independent trips out west. His connections with the railroad and friendships with the promoters for the Santa Fe Rail Road led to a degree of freedom of travel that any artist would have killed for. His promoter friend ensured Moran had a free pass anywhere the Santa Fe line ran, paid the Moran family’s Harvey House tabs Harvey Houses were Santa Fe hotels along the line), and took care of most of the bookkeeping and other logistics that allowed Moran unparalleled freedom and safety in the west. All this for agreeing to allow the Santa Fe Railroad to hold copyright on one of his works (and of his choosing) to use in their advertising campaign. In reality is was a win-win situation if ever there was one in the annals of art patronage.

Moran never lost his touch, and even in later years used light to greatly impact both the painting and the viewer.

Acoma (1903)

In Acoma we see Moran treating the Indians as Bierstadt had done, just as any other wildlife in the nature scene. More than that we see them riding into an uncertain future and disappearing into the dust cloud and then into landscape itself. His 1913 Venice is as close as he ever went to giving up form to pure light as Turner had. It is refreshing to see someone still working in the style of his original influence even late into his career and life. 
Venice (1913)

In a fun, if ironic twist Moran and the Hudson River School have been recently honored with their own USPS stamps. Moran, more or less, has retained a connection with his governmental patronage while it is funny to see artwork that is originally six by ten feet reduced to the literal size of a postage stamp.

 It might also be worth mentioning that, even in death, Bierstadt has missed out on another production for the American government. With that in mind, and in celebration of a long life full of creative vigor, travel, exploration, never ending romantically tinged realism, this image of Moran enjoying a cigar in 1912 seems the most fitting way to end this 2-pack of the Grand Landscape.