STEPHEN SHORE (American, born 1947)
U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon. July 21, 1973
Chromogenic color print (printed 2005), 17 1/4 x 21 1/2” (43.8 x 54.6 cm)
Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York
© 2009 Stephen Shore

Into the Sunset - Photography's Image of the American West
By Brian Appel


Beginning with documentary daguerreotypes taken by unknown photographers in the 1850s and ending with a staged image appropriated from the slick polish of the mass media by Richard Prince, “Into the Sunset”, an exhibition curated by Eva Respini, an associate curator, at the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography, provides an ordered sequence set up thematically that leads, like a road movie, to a good or bad end depending on whether the viewer sees the exhibition as a homage to the region’s infinite bounty and endless potential or a critique of the incendiary potential of the West’s promised beauty.

TIMOTHY O'SULLIVAN (American, born Ireland 1840-1882)
Ancient Ruins in the Canyon de Chelle, 1873
Albunen silver print, 10 13/16 x 7 15/16"
The Museum of Modern Art
Gift of Ansel Adams in memory of Albert M. Bender

 

The tradition of American landscape photography began in the West. Made under government patronage after the Civil War, Timothy O’Sullivan, who had learned his trade under the tutelage of the renowned Washington, D.C. studio of Matthew Brady, shaped an epic image of the West by underscoring the insignificance of humans in his windswept monumental pictures of an austere, even uninhabitable West.

Carleton E. Watkins, one of the first known photographers of Yosemite made his pictures there in 1861 with an 18-by-22 inch “mammoth” plate camera well suited to images celebrating the grandeur of the vast world of natural beauty and wonder that surrounded him.

In 1888 George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera allowing for the photographer as artist to emerge alongside the amateur and the commercial professional. Lyricism dominated photographic language at the turn of the century with practitioners emphasizing poetic images that did not reveal the realities of modern life, but instead reflected an image of the West as primeval.

The much-anticipated transcontinental railway completed in 1869 and the development of the automobile deeply affected how people experience the Western landscape. In the 1920s and 1930s the automobile became the preferred vantage point from which to experience America.

Ansel Adams and Edward Weston’s road-trip photographs of California were compelling advertisements for the great outdoors and through these photographs, the highway became an inescapable element of the image of the West.

Unlike the small circle of friends and patrons who embraced Watkins’s images of Yosemite, Ansel Adams’s particular blend of image based on personal mood and response rather than on intellectual or historical judgment helped reach a much broader viewership.

DOROTHEA LANGE (American, 1895-1965)
Migrant Mother, Nipomo, CA. 1936
Gelatin silver print, 11 1/8 x 8 9/16" (28.3 x 21.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Purchase


Dorothea Lange, best known for her depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was one of the few photographers that produced iconic images that functioned as both homage and critique. “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California”, (1936) helped to put a face to the hardships of the Depression, particularly those experienced by thousands of displaced farmers who were forced off their land with the mechanization of agriculture.

DOROTHEA LANGE (American, 1895-1965)
The Road West, New Mexico. 1938
Gelatin silver print, 9 5/8 x 13 1/16" (24.5 x 33.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase


Just two years later, her photograph, “The Road West, New Mexico”, pointed to a westward symbol of new opportunity and a better future and anticipated the post-World War Two economic boom and the introduction of the interstate freeway system cementing the automobile’s preeminence in the United States.

The road trip, especially via the legendary U.S. Route 66 (Chicago to L.A.) became an American rite of passage and a staple for many photographers working in the West including Robert Frank, whose influential “The Americans” was published in 1959.

The formal eloquence of the large format image was replaced by a rough-and-ready style of street photography—spontaneous and apparently casual—allowing him to shoot in crowds unseen or when people’s heads were diverted or hidden. His camera was used as a weapon against cultural and political conservatives and an establishment that he felt allowed narrow alternatives for the country’s sub-cultures and counter-cultures. Jack Kerouac, author of the ultimate American road-trip novel wrote the introduction. Frank’s pictures combined humor, sadness, outrage and despair that when strung together created a larger, cumulative expression of the Eisenhower-years’ odyssey.

In 1950 William A. Garnett was hired to make photographs of the construction of a suburban development to accommodate new demands for housing. Lakewood was one of the largest planned communities in the West, comprising over 17,000 homes laid out on a grid on 3,500 acres of land. The photographs are devoid of people and the focus was on the progress of construction. It seemed to fulfill the American dream of self-sufficiency and economic upward mobility but seen from above, the grid is both beautiful and terrible. The pictures were commissioned to promote the new development but subsequently, they came to represent all that was wrong with suburban development in the eyes of the critics.

GARRY WINOGRAND, American, 1928-1984
New Mexico. 1957
Gelatin silver print, 8 15/16 x 13 1/8" (22.8 x 33.3 cm)
© The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery
The Museum of Modern Art


Garry Winogrand’s infamous 1957 photograph of a toddler standing in the driveway of a suburban house in an austere desert landscape is the perfect archetype of a new dispassionate commentary on landscape photography. The stark black-and-white depictions of man-made structures in the land with an economy of description, a clarity of detail and a studied attempt to remain detached and seemingly objective paved the way for people like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz and their restrained depictions of man-made structures that fell under the rubric of “The New Topographics.”

ROBERT ADAMS (American, born 1937)
Colorado Springs, Colorado. 1968
Gelatin silver print, 5 15/16 x 5 15/16" (15.2 x 15.2 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Lily Auchincloss
© 2009 Robert Adams


It is hard to underestimate the art historical import of the detached and deadpan self-published 1963 book “Twenty-six Gasoline Stations”, the first in a series of artist’s books by the California artist Edward Ruscha. It was the spiritual opposite of Frank’s personal engagement in “The Americans”. Ruscha’s most ambitious book “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966), a twenty-seven-foot-long panorama of a ten-mile stretch of Sunset Boulevard in L.A., is pictured from the vantage of a car, and the street-level facades reveal little of the sprawl that extends beyond them.

Perhaps most significant about Ruscha’s books—he published fifteen artist’s books between 1963 and 1978—was that with them he inaugurated that dimension of photo-Conceptualism that definitively broke the pictorialist, high-art aspirations of modernist photography and challenged the categories of style, visuality, and technique upon which it depended.

BILL OWENS (American, b. 1938)
We're really happy. Our kids are healthy, we eat good food and we have a really nice home. 1972
Gelatin silver print, 8 1/16 x 9 15/16 ” (20.4 x 25.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the photographer
© 2009 Bill Owens


Bill Owens’s classic photographic essay, “Suburbia” depicts a culturally vacuous, middle-class suburban California in 1972. In “We Are Really Happy”, a young couple stand in their large, immaculate kitchen. On the table in front of them sit two icons of abundance—a bowl overflowing with preternaturally shiny fruit and a chubby baby. The stylish mother distractedly guides creamed corn into the child’s mouth, while Dad clutches a freshly poured cocktail. We know almost nothing about these people but for the moment, in their comfortable home, with their baby and their bounty, they do seem very happy in a way that many of us would like to be. A longer look confirms that one of the symbols of plenty that attend the couple, the bowl of fruit, is as plastic as the tile-pattern linoleum under their feet. And despite the sunny positivism on the picture’s surface, dusk is falling outside and through the sliding glass door, beyond the daisy appliqués, you can make out a power plant with its buzzing towers stretching across the horizon. So is this an admiring of a middle-class American dream come true or an ironic expose of bourgeois materialism?

Stephen Shore, who shared an interest with Andy Warhol in the commercial language of the road made diaristic color pictures of signs, billboards, and gas stations while on multiple cross-country journeys in the 1970s. “U.S. 97, south of Klamath Falls, Oregon, July 21, 1973” illustrates beautifully how photography can be seen as a signifying system that is not necessarily transparent but can mediate reality and as such, create an ideological function similar to myth-making.

 

Shore’s photograph of a billboard ad of a panoramic image of a glassy lake and snowy mountain rising majestically under a perfect blue sky set in a banal landscape creates confusion between what’s real and what isn’t. The blue in the sky of the image on the billboard and the blue in the sky of the actual location are identical but everything else in the billboard is an “artist’s” fantasy conception. The illusion of reality becomes the ironic content of the picture—nature and artifice have become one.

Having created its own myth and thoroughly critiquing it, where could photography and the American West go from here?

As sources of inspiration, artists are now drawing on other people’s images and co-opting them to their own purposes. Pop art, T.V. and the movies, commercials, the beats, new wave, punk, and figures like Roland Barthes and William Burroughs as well as seemingly inconsequential fragments of reality as a starting-point rather than the “natural” world appear to be in the air. Simple documentary realism has given way to a calculatedly theatrical form of image-making and a dizzying number of somersault-like artistic transformations that function on a range of levels that question art and the very nature of representation.

CINDY SHERMAN (American, b. 1954)
Untitled (Film Still #43), 1979
Gelatin silver print, 7 9/16 by 9 7/16 inches
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Acquired through the generosity of Sid R. Bass
copyright Cindy Sherman


As Cindy Sherman’s counterfeit self-portrait in harmony with nature—“Untitled (Film Still #43)”—and Richard Prince’s glorification of the virile cowboy culled from the Marlboro cigarette campaign—“Untitled (Cowboy)”—illustrate, who we are and where we come from just might be a totally manufactured fiction made to resemble fact. One can’t help but think that “Into the Sunset” ends with this notion that perhaps the camera has always been utilized as a delivery system for a particular lifestyle that perpetuates the value systems deemed as most appropriate for that moment. As Richard Prince has potently noted: “Advertising is reality, the only reality.”

 

Brian Appel 2009 Webdesign by Lovegrove & Repucci