Review by Scott Kirkpatrick
Two books I recently acquired, thanks to Amazon's thoughtful automatic suggestions, deal with the fabled lands of the West in entirely different ways. Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West, by Eva Respini, published to accompany an exhibit which closes June 8th at MoMA, treats the idea of the American West, as it evolves from the spiritual force conveyed by Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton E. Watkins, Ansel Adams and Minor White to the worldly observations of its present state by Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke and Lewis Baltz. (U.K. link.) The modern view is emphasized. The back slipcover is a "movie still," from Monument Valley, starring Cindy Sherman. The front of the book at first glance shows an upscale modern house nestled under desert mountains, but on closer inspection we see that a flash flood has torn the site apart, leaving one of the driveway's Cadillacs inverted, almost covered with mud, twenty feet below.
The book—and presumably the exhibit, which I have not seen—works by juxtaposition. For example, one spread contrasts Ansel Adams' and Minor White's clearing storm views of distant towering mountains with Stephen Shore's Oregon roadside with fields and a dramatic sky, to which a billboard adds the obligatory mountain and foreground lake. The resort name and details that the billboard originally carried have been painted out; the mountain and lake remain. Other combinations work well for me. One spread that I found intriguing combines a raw new hilltop town at the south end of what has become Silicon Valley, photographed by Watkins, with a similarly situated Hopi pueblo in Arizona and Robert Adams' view of the Denver metropolis from the mountain above.
From the intro: "In the late 1800s Kirkland became known for portraits of Wyoming cowboys and straightforward descriptions of ranch life." (But these are dress clothes.)
The book consists of two sections, "land" and "people." People as archetypes of the West also evolve, from the native Americans idealized by Edward S. Curtis or Gertrude Käsebier, to the present day: Joel Meyerowitz's and Bill Owens' suburbanites (in very different suburbs), and Philip-Lorca diCorcia's Major Tom, lying on John Lennon's sidewalk star. More subtle and rewarding are several groups of indigenous people photographed by members of their own groups.
Timothy O'Sullivan, Savage Mine, Curtis Shaft, Virginia City, Nevada, 1868.
Most of the earlier pictures were not familiar. Two favorites are miners inside the Savage mine (by O'Sullivan) and a spread of the entire Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in front of their tents. There is an introductory essay, that tries to say something pithy and relevant about every photographer. It can be skipped.
The subject of Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1857-1967, we are told in the very first sentence of the Introduction, delivers nearly 2,000,000 gallons of water per second into the Pacific Ocean. (U.K. link.) The Columbia River, the second largest river in North America, cutting through million-year-old volcanic flows sufficient in volume to cover the continental U.S. to a depth of 39 feet, sustaining native cultures for the past ten thousand years, and gradually domesticated during the period 1867–1957 that this book covers, is the focus of 20 years of collecting by photographer and curator Terry Toedtemeier* at the Portland Art Museum. This book, by Toedtemeier and John Laursen, is firmly rooted in the 80-mile-long Columbia River Gorge. It tells the story of the gorge's evolution together with the history of photography drawn to it. The prints are reproduced in color, retaining the toning, occasional hand-coloring, and stains of the original vintage prints, mostly obtained from local collectors or in the Portland Art Museum collection. Negatives from this era are rare; Watkins' were lost in the 1905 San Francisco earthquake.
Background: The gorge had two impassable stretches, the Cascade Rapids and the Long Narrows. One, the terrifying end of the Oregon trail. The other, the river turned on its side, with the entire flow passing through a narrow deep crack. Great for fishing. At the beginning of the period of this book, each had been bypassed by a portaging railroad. During this period, canals with locks were built, and at the end of the period, both were inundated behind hydroelectric dams.
Bertram C. Towne, Fishing at the Long Narrows, albumen silver print, circa 1889
This is the point, five miles upriver from The Dalles, where the entire river is channeled into a single linear chasm, cut deep into the bedrock. Several tribes had exclusive rights to the fishing here.
The first section (of five) of the book contains thirty plates by Carleton E. Watkins drawn from his visit in 1867 and subsequent trips in 1882–5. Watkins was not a pioneer in the sense of W. H. Jackson and O'Sullivan traveling with government expeditions before the Civil War. At that time there was a war going on...to eliminate the Indians. Unfortunates such as Ridgeway Glover, a Philadelphia photographer exploring without military escort, was perhaps the Sean Flynn of the early era of wet plate photography—he and a companion were eventually found dead, scalped and brutally mutilated.
Watkins, a successful portrait photographer, traveled with the encouragement and logistical support of transport company owners. His first visit to the Gorge was sponsored by the steamship and portaging railways. His second visits were facilitated by a private railway car provided by Collis Huntington of the Central Pacific. Yet he approached these opportunities as perhaps the first photo essayist. Stereo views fill in the steps between his large 20x24 wet plate exposures (and were probably his equivalent of shooting test Polaroids). He responded both to the spiritual impact of the pristine landscape, with isolated rocks, waterfalls, sand dunes, to the conjunction of steep bluffs and railroad tracks, or with detail-rich scenes of activity at the rail junctions. His mobility seems to have been limited. Later photographers, using dry plates and lighter equipment, climbed the bluffs and reached the Long Narrows where the fishing could be observed.
The middle section of the book is the work of three serious amateurs, working from 1903–05. Lily White and Sarah Ladd, on occasions joined by Maud Ainsworth, spent entire summers in the Gorge, operating from a houseboat which, in its cocktail configuration, could accommodate 150 people. It could be drawn through the canals and locks to any desired location, then moored for weeks at a time. Their platinum prints are sharp but atmospheric in intention. White and Ladd were elected associate members of Alfred Steiglitz' Photo Secession, among only six such from the West Coast.
The hand of man appears vividly in the final two sections. The fourth chronicles the appearance of the automobile, as the first tourist road was built up the gorge. The final section introduces two new elements: aerial photography, which finally integrates the separate parts of the story, and Kodachromes, by Ray Atkeson, documenting the construction of the Bonneville and Dalles dams. The entire river through the Gorge now appears broad and is navigable (with locks). The Dalles dam, producing hydropower and blessed by the fortuitous crossing of two transcontinental optical fibre links, is now surrounded by the world's largest Googleplex and many other sprawling computing facilities.
I've enjoyed both books, but I think in the long run I will spend more time with Wild Beauty. Instead of being about ideas, and indeed the ideas of others, it is about a place that Toedtemeier cared deeply about, and this care shows through.
*Toedtmeier died last December, after completing this book and opening the exhibition that is based on it. Here is an obituary that gives a nice sense of his personality and contributions.