Why western American landscape photography matters

John K. Hillers, Mesa at Zuni Pueblo, ca. 1875

Cameron Walker writes in a recent issue of High Country News,

Recently, I asked Martha Sandweiss, a Princeton University historian and author of Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, why people are so attracted to Western photographs — hoping, really, that I’d learn something more about myself.

Photography, she said, became a way of reframing the country after the Civil War. “The West was a place beyond history, during a time when recent history was really painful,” Sandweiss said. Many landscape photographers kept their cameras trained on the wilderness and its prospects, often omitting the West’s history and people to create a powerful illusion of a place where only the future mattered. “There’s this intense desire to imagine the West as our last great hope.”

To Sandweiss and Walker, the West in landscape photography is a place beyond history, a place where only the future matters, the West as our last great hope.  I agree.  Placing this position on one side, say, the positive side, we have the other position that Western landscape photography displaced a painful past (Civil War in this case), created an illusion and omitted actual history (relocating Indians, extermination of vast herds of buffalo, hollowing out natural resources).  Both sides fit together although we repress the pain, illusion and facts in favor of a place beyond history.  Look at the following three photographs, continue reading and let me explain.

Ansel Adams, Tetons and the Snake River, Wyoming, 1942

Jeff Lynch, Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, 2011

Montucky of Montana Outdoors, Cool, clear water, 2011

In the three photographs of Ansel Adams, Jeff Lynch and Montucky, each has captured a western landscape in pure form, without human artifice intruding — no church spires, courthouses, schools or bridges.  As we wander into these Wests, I submit that we want to leave behind those objects that change the terrain — automobile, antennas, roads.  Further, if we seek to preserve these pure forms, we must leave behind the ideologies of exploitation, over-consumption and race.  We may desire preservation, but the ongoing drive of the machine into the West can hardly be slowed down, much less stopped, as population expands.  We may want to leave behind the ideologies and terrain-changing objects and, though difficult, it is not impossible.

I do not view nature in these photographs as a cropping or harvesting opportunity and they are not presented as such by the artists.  I see rivers, streams, trees and mountains that are in themselves moving and living things, having the same molecular and atomic substance that make up my flesh, bones and hair.  Different arrangements for a time, the land and me, but substantially the same.  These three photographs give rise, I believe, to humanity’s kinship with the earth and invite gentle, ethical occupation of the land.  When I move into these Wests I do not want to construct a Monticello, but rather fit my home and hearth into the line and contour of the earth as in John K. Hillers, Mesa at Zuni Pueblo, seen above.

Leaving artifice behind, slowing the machine and having kinship with the earth in thought and deed has been tried before, and the dream has died ten-thousand times and it will die again.  Sand Creek and Ludlow coexist with the Rockies as backdrop in our history — blood and beauty.  Nonetheless, every vignette of western landscape offers the dream again, a chance to move on past the pain of history and into the wild without the machine.  Art museums, galleries and photographic books elicit a response in the viewer that there is a purity of form beyond the city, in all landscapes, all regions.  As a special art, western American landscape photography matters because it renews again and again what has been torn in our history.  We build upon beauty momentarily captured on film and not what has been shattered in history.  Western landscape photography can help us transcend what has terribly gone wrong.  As a result, I submit, we will take lighter loads and bigger hearts in our wagons when we migrate West next time.

It is all there in the photographs, beyond the lens of Adams, Lynch and Montucky.  They point the way.  Can you not see it?

* * *

Not all people that view landscape photography of the West will see renewal or lessen their impact on the land.  The West is still seen as ripe for exploitation and extraction.  New lamentations are writ everyday in the West and many of them are never heard, yet they are always seen — on film.



Cameron Walker, January 24, 2011, High Country News, interviews Martha Sandweiss, “Depth Afield: Why is the Western Image so Appealing?”

Mesa at Zuni Pueblo from James L. Enyeart, Land, Sky, and All That is Within: Visionary Photographers in the Southwest, Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1998.

Additional comment, February 2, 2011.  Caralee Woods of Kanab, Utah, sent this by e-mail and I post it as another example of the appeal of the western image.

Caralee Woods, Paria River, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah, 2010.


Filed under Life in Balance, Life Out of Balance

18 responses to “Why western American landscape photography matters

  1. Another very interesting piece Jack! Although I have pondered the popularity of Western photography I was never able to put any social or historical context to my questions. The idea that part of their popularity was forgetting other, and sadder, parts of our history makes perfect sense.

    And now for the best part: “I see rivers, streams, trees and mountains that are in themselves moving and living things, having the same molecular and atomic substance that make up my flesh, bones and hair. Different arrangements for a time, the land and me, but substantially the same. ” I have been trying to say this eloquently for years. You beat me to it. Thank you. Thank you. My sentiments exactly.

    • Bill: Since I have found and read your blog, I think your writing is superb with such detail and emotion that I seek to emulate as best I can. So much of my writing has been academic that I feel stilted in style. I spent a lot of time today on this post, maybe four hours, trying to formulate a true concept of western landscape photography, or at least my view of it. When I read your work, and I should write this on your blog, I see quality in form and emotion about the earth that is tribal, an ancient story about campfires up there in the cold, cold northeast, far from these dusty places in Texas, that is quite resonate to all of humanity’s narrative, whether New England or the Southwest. I don’t think I’ve got the final say on western landscape photography, but I can see something in the West as a “safety value” and a Lockean tabula rasa for our aspirations.

      I wanted to write in this post also that “western landscape photography” is but a sliver of all landscape photography, on all continents, that pushes humanity to renew itself in the veld, the wild, the bush. And, then, in the future, to space where surely we must go and establish the best and the brightest that we have on this good earth. I think Hubble is Ansel Adams.

  2. Wonderful post, Jack. I am so far behind reading your blog it’s pathetic, but I caught the title of this one and had to take a look. I presented at a conference a week or so ago about art and conservation, and there is little doubt in my mind that if not for the western landscape photographers of the 1860’s and 70’s, much of what has been protected as park land may well have been exploited and torn asunder.

    To my mind the landscape photographer shows us what our world really is–Heaven.

    • Marie: That’s an angle about landscape photographers that rings so true. They saved acres of park land, the critters and trees upon it. Did you present a paper about it? If so, send it to me by e-mail. I would love to read it. I think it also Heaven.

  3. Kittie Howard

    I see rivers, streams, trees and mountains that are in themselves moving and living things, having the same molecular and. . . .

    Jack, I’m not copying the full sentences as Bill did so above, but there’s a certain power in what you wrote that tugs at the timeless heart, how one looks at the stars and feels a oneness, how we all come from so much but are all the same.

    I hadn’t thought about the art of Western photography as having both escapist and futuristic backdrops. You’ve opened my eyes to a whole new thought, one I need to pursue. Yes, Adams is one with it all, but I think the French Impressionistic painters painted earlier rivers and roads for him to travel.

    Thank you for a superb post!!

    • Thanks, Kittie. As I wrote the post I thought of the Impressionists and given a longer post, book even, they need to be integrated into the thesis. Stay warm up there on the east coast.

  4. “We will take lighter loads and bigger hearts in our wagons when we migrate West next time.” That is one fine phrase. Others, too, but that one sings to me. Thanks, Jack.

  5. As usual, Jack, your writing is wonderful reading and leaves me with much to think about.

    I agree with everything that you said, and am especially touched by your thought that “Western landscape photography can help us transcend what has terribly gone wrong.” Though I have not thought about that consciously, it is probably the impetus for displaying the photos that I bring back from the time I spend in the world away from the cities and machines, much in the vein of, “Here is some of the beauty that can be found in the wild country, the real natural world of which we all are a part; can you not love it?”

    I remember hearing Steve Irwin one time say that he did what he did because he felt that if people could really see and get to understand the animals they would love them…and people want to protect things that they love. I hope the same is true of the wild country.

    • I had not thought about Steve Irwin in a long time. Your quote and comment pinning his thought to the wild country is right on! Getting people through the portal, into the wild, is difficult and scary for the uninitiated. Yet, your work in photography can make the entry into the wild less threatening.

  6. And I too echo others above me who were so touched by your words: “I see rivers, streams, trees and mountains …Different arrangements for a time, the land and me, but substantially the same.” Such power and so necessary for all of us to get this deeply in our bones if we are to summon the common will to change our relationship with our wild and beautiful earth. We must find the wild and beautiful in us, us humans, in ourselves, in each other. We must fall in love and the photographers open our hearts. Not because its useful to the collective ego but because the sacredness of things resides here and invites us in.

    • Every now and then, a sentence comes out of nowhere, falling into place, rarely requiring editing. That sentence was it. Wrensong, as you write, we do need to find the wild in us. Fall in love with the wild and beautiful in each other. That, too, is the sentence.

  7. Jack, I had to come back and add: the photo Caralee sent is of an area I’ve hiked. I’ve crossed the Paria more than once. It’s a stunningly beautiful place and certainly meets the requirements for falling in love with the wild. Indeed. You’ve given me more food for thought about western landscape photography, the essential place it holds in our collective history, and our shared love of the frontier.

    • Caralee lives out in that vicinity. The Escalante area is one of several reasons why she and Jimmy moved out there. “I’ve crossed the Paria more than once.” I would like to hear about your experiences. It is a beautiful photograph.

  8. William G.

    I, too, am touched by Western landscape photography (coming to it by way of studying Civil War photography) and by the fine words that you use to accompany your chosen images. There is perhaps one caveat, though, and I raise it only to further the discussion and certainly not to disparage any of the points brought up here. It is important to realize that none of these images would exist without the interference of man, despite the lack of overt signs of human intrusion. Ansel Adams, as is often the case (for better or for worse — his Japanese-American relocation camp pictures being among the latter), presents the pristine, but glosses over the fact that even by 1942, the Snake River basin was fairly polluted. The Palo Duro Canyon has been protected by its status as a park, its infrastructure due to New Deal political will: our escape from government and society to the wilderness is done over roads carved out by the most important “intrusion” into our public lives probably ever in American history.

    My students still believe, for all their technical savvy, that photographs do not, cannot lie. I try to get them to understand that photographs reveal the multiple layers of truth that envelope our lives. No churches perhaps in these photos, but if you look closely enough, you see man.

    In peace.

    • William, thank you for commenting. I do like your reference to man’s interference, both good and ill. There are multiple layers there in the photographs, I do agree. The “drilling down” into photographs will reveal or correlate larger things as you bring up. I like to analyze or look closely at city photographs of the early-twentieth or late-nineteenth centuries, too, for you can see people in windows, fashion, etc. Man has protected these natural resources such as Palo Duro. That road to the bottom was constructed with CCC labor as you know. Thanks, William, and I am glad you wrote a comment. Are you living in the Texas Panhandle?

      • William G.

        I never did answer you (what’s three years in the long run of civilization?) and for that I am sorry. The Texas Panhandle is far away from my home in France, though where I now teach many of the students come from a rural background. Your blog helps me (suburban and urban child) see at least part of where they might be coming from. But really I dip into your slices of panhandle life because of their/your sincerity. We are there, with you. I have the same feeling as when I read a Ted Kooser or William Stafford poem. The small detail that makes all the difference in the world.


      • Bill, thank you for your sentiment. Yes, in details, a world can be seen. Stay warm up there. I hear you have had snow 🙂

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