Developing the West

Developing the West

By John O’Hern

Published online courtesy Wetern Art Collector,  May, 2010

The great 19th-century Western landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) first traveled West in 1859. Schooled in the academic traditions of Europe, he also saw the benefits of photography and used his sketches and photographs as aids in composing his large paintings. Bierstadt’s brothers Edward and Charles had a photography company and produced stereopticon slides, some of which show a mysterious man painting outside an easel.

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) accompanied the government-funded Hayden Expedition from Wyoming to the Yellowstone area in 1870. His photographs of that expedition were the first of the region and played an important role in the establishment of Yellowstone as the nation’s first National Park.

 William Henry Jackson, Los Pinos Valley Looking West, Negative Date: 1883 ca., Albumen print

William Henry Jackson, Los Pinos Valley Looking West, Negative Date: 1883 ca., Albumen print

Image courtesy of The Andrew Smith Gallery, Inc.

Those of us today, who use our cell phones and digital cameras to record the landscape, have no idea the difficulties early photographers underwent to produce their images. Jackson carried many cameras, some of which used 8-by-10 inch plate and others that held plates up to 18 by 22 inches, with the plates made of heavy – and fragile – glass. The glass plates had to be coated with light-sensitive emulsion on-site and require exposures of several seconds to over 20 minutes – the length of time based on guess work and experience. Despite the hardship, Jackson produced tens of thousands of images of the West.

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is, perhaps, the best-known photographer of the West. He began photographing in the Yosemite region when he was 14 using a simple Kodak Brownie box camera. He began photographing for the Sierra Club and later met a colleague who would gain equal stature, Edward Weston 91886-1958). Weston and Adams formed a group called f64, which referred to a setting on a camera that allowed the most detail since they were rebelling against the soft-focus romantic photographs prevalent at the time.

Adams’ remarkable photographs of broad and dramatic tonal range and depth of focus were made possible by a technique he developed called the Zone System. Adams visualized the print he wanted from a scene and would expose his film accordingly and adjust the film and paper chemicals to realize his vision.

Early photographers tried to capture the grandeur of the newly found landscapes of the West. Others found its poetry. Adams wrote, “Some photographers take reality…and impose the domination of their own thought and spirit. Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation.”

Curtis and Woodman photos

Upper image: Edward Sheriff Curtis, The Terraced Houses of Zuni, photograph copyrighted 1903, after 1925, copperplate photogravure in sepia ink on Van Gelder paper, 18"x22"

Gift of Joanna Wurtel.  Photograph by Nick Williams / Courtesy Rockwell Museum of Art

Lower image: Daniel Woodman, No, No, No, 2003; Archival Pigment print, 33.1875"x40"

Image courtesy Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, Santa Fe, NM

Contemporary photographers such as Donald Woodman document the impact of Western expansion on the landscape. Often humorous and always ironic, his images show the grandeur desecrated and the poetry sullied.

Artists like Christopher Burkett continue to find the poetry. Burkett’s large-format color images make us more alert to the beauty around us.

“The world untouched and undefiled by man is one of indescribable beauty and wonder,” he writes, “a world filled with light and peace. The miracle of life unfolds before our eyes, and is seen in the tapestry of creation…The purpose of my photography is to provide a brief, if somewhat veiled, glimpse into that clear and brilliant world of light and power.”

The Native peoples of the west – for whom the vast landscapes has been home long before being “discovered” in the 19th century – continue to be subjects for some of the great Western photographers.

Edward Sheriff Curtis, Tesuque Buffalo Dancers, photograph copyrighted 1925, after 1925, copper-plate photogravure in sepia ink on Van Belder paper, 22"x18"

Edward Sheriff Curtis, Tesuque Buffalo Dancers, photograph copyrighted 1925, after 1925, copper-plate photogravure in sepia ink on Van Belder paper, 22"x18"

Gift of Joanna Wurtel.  Photograph by Nick Williams / Courtesy Rockwell Museum of Art

Edward Curtis (1868-1952) is known not only as a photographer but also as an ethnographer. He collected artifacts and recorded Indian language and music on wax cylinders. His series, The North American Indian, comprised 20 volumes, each of which contained 75 photogravures. In the introduction to the first volume, Curtis wrote, “The information that is to be gathered…respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.”

Ansel Adams was an apologist for photography which, even today, still needs apologists. “Photography is more than a medium for factual communication of ideas,” he exclaimed. “It is a creative art.”

Santa Fe Editor John O'Hern, who has retired after 30 year in the museum business, specifically as the Executive Director and Curator of the Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, N.Y., is the originator of the internationally acclaimed Re-presenting Representation exhibitions, which promote realism in its many guises.  John was chair of the Artists Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.  He writes for gallery publications around the world, including regular monthly features on Art Market Insights in American Art Collector magazine.  Having succumbed to the lure of the West, he now lives in what he refers to as a "converted adobe goat shed," in the high desert of New Mexico, where is acquainting himself with new flora and fauna.