This post comes to us from Lacy Gillette, former curatorial intern and current visitor services assistant supervisor.
Searching the Horizon: The Real American West 1830-1920 (Art from the Bank of America Collection) is on view in the McKernan Gallery until March 4, 2012 and has already drawn large crowds to the exhibition devoted to the American West, its landscape and its people. Divided into four thematic sections – Settlement, Landscape, Native Americans, and Urbanization and Industry – the exhibition features over 100 artworks and objects to offer the viewer a range of interpretations of the American West. While the exhibition provides a rich historical account of the changing face of the American West, it is also elucidates the fact that painters’ and photographers’ portrayals of Western culture were often romanticized depictions of “a long-lost era” that influenced and reinforced “Eastern” perception of the people of the 19th and 20th century American West.
The end of the Civil War marked the concentrated beginning of Westward expansion. The wide open spaces of the western frontier were perceived to be “without history and a dynamic force of physical and transcendental freedom waiting for someone to act upon.” ♦ Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief that America was destined to expand across the continent, became the rationalization for dominating the native peoples and the land that they had occupied for centuries.
In large part, it was public curiosity about the West that fueled a demand for images of “the unknown”. For the first time, the expansive landscape and the lifestyles of Native Americans began to be visually recorded. As early as the 1830s, painter George Catlin (1796-1872) sponsored his “Indian Gallery” which put on display Native Americans and their cultural artifacts on display for a European audience.
Photography also became a viable and sought-after method for capturing the West. During the 19th century, photography was used to validate numerous ethnological theories that were believed to provide a scientific method for classifying nonindustrial cultures as “types”. Wisconsin-born photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) became one of the foremost photographers of the American West and its people.
Curtis was a young prodigy who was able to construct his very own camera at the age of twelve. His career as a photographer, however, did not officially begin until he met and photographed Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle. Later, in 1906, Curtis was funded by J.P. Morgan to produce a photographic body of work that sought to document the Indians of North America. From over thirty decades, Curtis worked with approximately eighty native groups, producing some 40,000 images. He wrote four books and supervised sixteen others including The North American Indian (1907-1930).
While Curtis was a dedicated visionary who pursued the prophetic quest of cataloguing how Indians lived before their contact with European settlers, his photographs should not be mistaken for unmediated fragments of reality. Rather than producing candid shots, Curtis often used both props and hand selected accoutrements to stage his subjects. The image of a Zuni woman, for example, focuses on the striking expression of the sitter to create a beautifully composed, carefully studied portrait. It was a pose that provided clarity and symmetry – one that Curtis employed frequently, precisely because of its undeniable aesthetic appeal. The woman looks out at the viewer, with only her face visible from her wool cloak. A basket and pot sits atop her head as though Curtis had casually snapped his image of the woman as she went about her daily chores.
The photographic portfolio of Curtis represents a merging of artistic and documentary motivations in recording his subjects. While his portraits were not purely based in reality, there are not necessarily inauthentic. A sense of strength, pride, honor, and dignity of native peoples is effectively captured in his works and reflect his belief that “the passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed but no other.” Consequently, “the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time.”
The paintings, photographs, and sculptures featured in Searching the Horizon continuously facilitate questions regarding the role of each artist as a witness, reporter, and mythmaker of indigenous lifestyles within a quickly-changing and complex region. Please be sure to see them before the exhibition closes on March 4th.
Can the role of artist and ethnological surveyor be separated? Is it possible to capture a truly “pure,” documentary image? Where should early images of the West be situated within the spectrum of artistic depictions and historical documents?
♦Seizing the Light A History of Photography Robert Hirsch 2000 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York. P. 148-153