PRINT October 1975

The Box in the Wilderness

. . . here we bring our camp. When “Old Shady” sings us a song at night, we are pleased to find that this hollow in the rock is filled with sweet sounds. It was doubtless made for an academy of music by its storm-born architect; so we name it music temple.

THUS, IN 1875, WROTE John Wesley Powell, recalling an experience as head of the United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region. But the photos made to document expeditions like his can tell us nothing of the liquid sounds men heard, the high-keyed colors they saw, or the extremes of temperature under which they suffered. Something else these photos omit as well: they are windless and devoid of the momentary dappled shadows clouds make. Sprawled out before or beneath the lens, the landscape affords few signs of motion. Even the close fall of brook water, reading as a steamed-out blur, does not ruffle the petrified effect of such tableaux. The very air seems pumped from them, and the skies tend to bleach into eventless zone. When a haze or backlight appears, it hovers quietly without resistance, as if in a vacuum. Shown forth by its most energetic photographers—Watkins, O’Sullivan, Muybridge, Russell, Jackson—nature appears as a locale from which most temperate currents of life have been expelled.

So much the more do these photographs emphasize the brute Western terrain. Stony or leafy matter and sky cohabit within the frame rather than reciprocally animating each other through light. The glassiest rivers do mirror sharp cliff profiles, but so clearly marked off is each mass from the next (and each pebble from its neighbor) as to seem laid permanently in place. Strata of dark and light, near and far, smooth and rough, alternate as fitted segments of the panorama, gathering into themselves their distinct aspects. You can trace the jagged seams of every declivity or escarpment, and note the clinical outlines of the mesas. Yosemite is time and again rendered as a jigsaw of cascaded rock, timber, and scrub, each foreground part assigned a density that fades in more distant versions toward the Alpine horizon.

These firm layouts help to sculpt the lonely, bald bulks of the canyon heights as well as their more Saturnine depths. Several of the mammoth wet plates already behave in this fashion as embryo stereographs. They do not suck you in past a series of cardboard planes as do the popular double photos taken by the same men. But the receding natural edges within them seem glued to invisible surfaces parallel to the paper. If altitude made these scenes hard to climb by foot, the cut-out vistas of these old photos look visually impassible. Where is the viewer who can imagine hiking over these unseen gaps and “around” those backless crags?

Even in the open badlands and the deserts, silhouettes assert the frontality of the great volumes that swell up from the ground or have been left as water and wind carved them ages ago. It is raw, wanton, baleful country, on an Olympian scale. When figures are seen, antlike, in the wilderness, they were meant by the photographer to dramatize the enormity of that scale. But we notice, too, that they are at loose ends, aimless almost, giving no impression that they know what to do with these places, or in them. If people are shown as that little related to their surround, it is either because it has been recently devastated or because they have not yet been able to grow with it, impress upon it, subtly or not, the rhythm of their ways. For their part, the expeditionary photographers concern themselves only with recording the stationary, chaotic matter that spreads before them.

The eloquence of their results is at extreme variance with the taste they initiated. After a century of hackneyed, romantic shots of the Rockies, and postcards of the national parks, the Metropolitan Museum restores to us the archaic patterns that impressed their first photographers. To move through the 126 originals of “The Era of Exploration” (1860–1885) is to be struck by the impassivity of their description of scenery that we know from experience and countless later images to have invoked a sentimental awe. As for cliché Western ruggedness, these mauve-gray compositions, though they rove over some of the same ground, are as removed from Marlboro country as the moon is from the earth. The latest art to photograph these reaches does not startle us anywhere as much as the earliest, which has all the freshness of discovery to recommend it.

Or is it our discovery that such motifs could be looked at with a curiousness that did not realize as yet how to make them intimate or melodramatic, or symbolic of a dozen appropriate human emotions? O’Sullivan’s photographs, it seems to me, have less in common with Ansel Adams’s (though they treat similar subjects) than with those portraying the mute Indians, posing stiffly in all their regalia. The granite frontier and the stony-faced chief project, in a sense, the same countenance. There is no evident need to admire or disparage, no intelligence behind the camera that jabs at our reflexes, or shows any liberal desire to establish kinship with what it depicts. Lacking even a goal of that sort, such photography gained in toughness. O’Sullivan’s occasional Indians, or Muybridge’s, are as undomesticated as the outdoors they roam. Russell and Jackson wanted Congress to preserve the wilds (at Yellowstone, for example) as they were, an aim that would have been betrayed by prettification. In this world suspended beyond time, appearances could no more help being beautiful than looking forlorn. They are revealed as indifferent to the way humans construed them. Despite its often dreamlike atmosphere, the photography that conveys that unwilled state of affairs applies an astringent vision which we trust.

The early photographers eagerly accepted the requirement that they should be authentic historical witnesses. If they were employed by the Union Pacific Railroad to picture its advance across the continent, they knew themselves to be on a very historic mission indeed. Then, too, the government-sponsored scientific or military surveys enlisted them for comparable, even more official purposes. But of what does the historical value of their work consist?

From photographs of the last third of the 19th century, we learn a great deal about the growth of cities, the arrival of immigrants, conditions of urban work and leisure, the look of public figures, the lives of families, changes of styles in clothes and commerce: data as articulate and varied as that. It suited an age of industrial expansion to have provided a cheap, relaxed, vernacular, yet above all, objective means with which to store images of how it carried on. These images would naturally be situated through a course of time inflected by the dynamic changes they themselves record. Little as they set down any account of social cause and effect, they must still be judged as priceless deposits in the archives of a civilization.

But to turn from them to these landscapes is to be transposed into prehistory, a setting not yet irrigated by civilized deeds. There is no apparent historicity in these desolate images other than what a trained eye can fathom of the undatable geological progress of the earth. Prolonged experience of their work induces a vertigo of solitude, a sense of being marooned in useless freedom, alien to human history. The excessively slow exposure, necessary for the wet plates of the day, would have exaggerated any quickening in the field, but instead etches only a profound immobility, as if nature had nothing better to do than stare back at the camera.

But history often exists for the makers of photographs on other levels from those of their viewers. The stuff of most photographs is quasi-anecdotal or reportorial, and its historical value fluctuates through time. Because their future significance could not be predicted, they are fairly straightforward, unassuming records, even when staged. But these stiffly imposing, highly wrought landscapes, though they have no “story” to transmit, positively radiate a sense of great historical moment, brought on by contact with their subjects. Since photography abounds in lucky, incandescent contacts and portentous set-ups, the novel impression this work gives must be of a different order. For nothing less than the division of one epoch from another seems to be commemorated in it. Only once before in its short life had camera art been infused with this naive, luminous, and moving self-importance—and that was at its inception. Every shade of those earliest photos communicates an amazed pleasure at the machine’s powers of sight, fully (and rightly) historical in its consciousness. The first-born photographic act had utmost cultural import, whatever its possibly humble motif.

Twenty-five years or so later, the impulse to explore blended with the urge to experiment. It had been realized that the urban-dweller’s knowledge of the world, particularly of its exotic places and great works, did not have to remain hearsay. Painting had been out on occasional expedition to remote habitats for less than a century. But it could not and would not bring back visual information convincing enough to reduce the sense of the distance of these locales from European culture. On the contrary, given the homey filters through which it projected its quaint findings, it was as if the painter’s eye had never traveled. But you could look at the images of Fenton from Moscow or the Crimea, Thomson from China, Du Camp and Frith from Egypt, Holtzer from Persia, and feel that you had been there. Still, more was involved in this experience than an unprecedented intimacy. Not only had these and other photographic campaigns coincided with an increased expansion of Western capital through foreign space, but they bestowed upon their viewers a sense of technical superiority over all those who had been pictured. Those portrayed knew it well, for both the Sultan of Egypt and a Pawnee Indian are on record as having spoken of the photograph, quite fairly, as the work of the devil. That anthropological and art-historical data were greatly augmented, that tourist appetites were whetted, there could be no doubt. Equally clear was the photographic confirmation of whole new territories of underdevelopment, and of markets whose conquest would spur ever more industrial progress. How appropriate that the camera, along with the railroad and the telegraph, was itself a feat of that industrialism.

What did it mean to photograph a gorge in Utah in 1869? When the Bisson brothers climbed the Savoy Alps, newly acquired by Louis-Napoleon in 1860, they photographed the French flag as a ready-made sign claiming the motif as part of the Empire. Such evidence of mastering the heights was a crude way of insinuating, or flattering, what the Emperor presumably had in mind. But the Americans were in their own republic, and until then had been unconvinced that it had monuments, natural or human-made. Wherever else photographers had ventured, they came upon an ancient culture which they could respect. When they trekked out to the West, however, they came upon incomprehensible forms, stupefying distances. And it is the shock of its space, even to 19th-century eyes far more accustomed to openness than our own, that is precipitated repeatedly in their images. The clear mountains on the horizon could be 50 miles away; from summits, those further might be hundreds. Compared to this vision, all other photo prospects on the world looked foreshortened.

Their numbers proved that such Western landscapes were not mere stunts; their high resolution and the extreme care with which they were executed indicate that they were thought of more as self-sufficient art than as documents of an arrival. Yet, they still function as proprietary gestures, overviews of earth that would take more intrepid energy to settle, and more intelligence to tame, than the other exploratory photographs of their time imply. A civil war had interrupted, but not spent these energies. Now, some of the precise ways in which this energy was to be challenged could be glimpsed in these photos. Simply as imagery that succeeded a great war experience, they can have a foreboding mood. Only in Gardner’s or Barnard’s pictures of southern ruins, and O’Sullivan’s body-strewn fields, is there a comparable grandeur. One knows these new images betokened a beginning, but they can also have the feel of the ending of an enterprise. It is as if civilization were poised over an enormous nothingness and saw its reflection there.

Technically, the photographs of the West depended on the perfection of the wet collodion glass plates that would allow for large, detailed, and reproducible work outdoors. Being one of a kind, delicate and too tricky to handle in the glare, daguerreotypes, really a cabinet art, were inadequate for this purpose. Calotypes, on the other hand, while furnishing a negative from which unlimited prints could be made, purveyed a seductive but uninforming tonality. To do justice to the magnitude and complexity of their landscape subjects, photographers brought to bear on them gigantic apparatuses that had to be specially constructed. They were capable of producing remarkable depth of field and pictures of assertive scale, whether exhibited on a wall or mounted in an album. Watkins used an 18-by-21-inch frame; Jackson eventually employed one 20 by 24 inches. With such equipment, before the accentuation of grain in enlargements, they transmuted into the landscape genre all the clarity that had hitherto been the preserve of portraiture. In effect, it would be accurate to call their work landscape portraits. The critical praise of their verisimilitude implies recognition of this state, and the medal that Watkins’s photography won at a Paris exposition in 1867 acknowledged its special technique as well as its California subject. Here was an indigenously American emphasis on visual fact that was not stigmatized as provincial because it fostered a technological advance.

But the likenesses achieved had their artifice. The reason skies in these photos are often white is that collodion was so sensitive to blue light that the time needed to delineate the ground overexposed them. Muybridge, among others, is well known for having composed many scenes with two negatives, one of which presented a satisfactorily clouded or dense sky. In actual portraiture, retouching smoothed away a too-graphic rendition of bodily flaws; in this landscape mode, another light was introduced to compensate for the one that had been insufficiently realized. Correcting such an imbalance had commercial as well as esthetic aims; it also furthered the hallucinatory qualities of an art devoted to truth.

One more intermittent feature of this photography, while it did not heighten its unreality, speaks frankly of its process. The great, awkward bulk of these camera machines made them troublesome baggage on voyages through rough country. Survey parties often planned their itineraries to accommodate the needs of the photographic teams, and deferred to the wishes of their bosses who, like O’Sullivan, sometimes led image-catching expeditions of their own. Of course this behavior showed not so much respect for the prestige of the photographic artist as it revealed the priority given photographic testimonials of research conditions and subjects. Abundant references to the prodigious hardships of these safaris are to be found in the catalogue of “The Era of Exploration,” written by Weston Naef, with essays by James Wood and Therese Heyman. But one also sees there a number of photographs whose protagonist is the camera itself—the box in the wilderness. Russell pictures the monster at Bitter Creek, Utah, and we have, with so many others, Muybridge’s Flying Studio, O’Sullivan’s van near Carson, as well as Jackson’s, near rocks below Platte Canyon, Colorado. These pioneers were all, evidently, extremely fond of such shots.

It would not have occurred to a painter to depict his brush, colors, and palette in the desert, for the point would have been redundant as a self-reference contained by a pictorial work that was entirely ruled by the artist’s own consciousness. One suspects, though, that the photographers related to their medium quite differently, since they had not only an innocent pride in having gotten the camera to where it was, but a sense of occasion in that unseen nature was being transcribed by a tool far more exact and impersonal than our biased senses. To a late-modern sensibility, considerable charm is exerted by this apparent distancing from the motif. One might even imagine the photographers ironically disengaging from or undermining the content of their art by showing its instrument, confessing its mechanical origin. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that its origin legitimized their work, that it was a source of fierce justification not to have been bound in by their egos. Naef says of O’Sullivan that he “used his camera much as the surveyors did their levels, telescopes and tripods, to record his surroundings as objectively . . . as possible.” That is, he would appropriate a territory for the visual sense, as a map secured it for the mind.

That might account, in part, for the meticulous character of the photography, but still does not lead us to conclude that any one picture or group of pictures was useable in a strictly scientific sense. Watkins in the 1860s, and Muybridge, following close and competitively behind him, had no such aim, and marketed their images of the Sierra Nevada for the excursionists from San Francisco. As for the expeditionary photographers far to the east of them, estheticism and empiricism mingled happily in their work, taking from each other without resolving the issue. Their desire for control fell in, unreflectively, with the surprising yet evident designs of nature, producing a tight fit. But if one examines the intellectual background of the men who led the surveys—Clarence King, F. V. Hayden, and Powell—one sees within their climate of antagonistic impulses and ideas a theoretical pressure which photography, now according to the one argument, now to the other, quietly released.

To say of 19th-century natural science that much of it was engendered to acknowledge the existence and rule of a deity is to say nothing exclusive, nothing that separates it from its own tradition. Rather, the distinguishing thing that seems to have happened is that two different approaches to knowledge of nature came to a head and clashed a hundred years ago. One theory supposed that awareness of universal forces was gained through close observation of the world, and the other held that observed data were useful only in determining what phenomena did. The consciousness behind the perceiving eye reacted subjectively to the architecture of the natural world, viewing matter out there as having an intelligent purpose like its own. To classify types was to confirm the great scheme of the creator, and more, as Humboldt said romantically in Cosmos, “to consider the impressions reflected by the external senses on the feelings, and the poetic imagination of mankind.” There was no point in studying nature unless you would be affected by it, and your moral understanding was raised because of it. Visual art could reflect that encounter at its highest.

So one important aspect of 19th-century thought provided for the convergence of science, theology and art. From Humboldt to his student Agassiz, and then on to his student, Clarence King (followed shortly after by Powell), this tradition maintained its life. It ideologically opposed itself to the materialism that was convulsing the Eastern landscape, and to the objective appeal to study the history of nature, apart from human emotion, represented in Darwinism. In short, the findings of a science that sought to grasp the real process of origin, growth, and development, of natural causes and effects, their successive modifications through actual time, was alien to the explorers’ sensibility. There was no agent that could be said to have organized this world, no cosmic power with which, in its view, the human ego could identify. King wrote in a survey journal:

I have read in Revelations of the passing away of the earth and all the beauty and grandeur of it. I read too of a new heaven and a new earth, beautiful in type. Well then, if this is transitory, why study as hard into all the intricate mazes of fact, which will be swept away and known no more? I look for lessons. (quoted by Roger Stein, John Ruskin and Aesthetic Thought in America, p. 171)

This redemptive fantasy of a Second Coming befitted the intellectual turmoil of the Civil War’s aftermath (Reconstruction). In his theory of “catastrophism,” King wanted to prove that the “experience of sudden, unusual telluric energy . . . [left] a terrible impression burned upon the very substance of human memory” (quoted by Naef). O’Sullivan’s Volcanic Ridge, Trinity Mountains, Nevada, or his Rock Formations, Pyramid Lake, were meant as didactic illustrations of “recent violence” that King thought would be effaced by a new Eden.

He promoted his first survey to Congress as a gathering of information necessary to excavate the mineral resources of the land. His own technical schooling as a geologist contradicted his willful dreams of cyclic renewal. And the metal lines of transport that even then were penetrating the frontier could only have been brought about through a harnessing of natural energies, not a mere appreciation of them. Darwinian evolutionary theory was being misapplied to the economic world, whose ruthless laissez-faire psychology the explorers, whether in the short or the long term, knew they were serving. There was, then, a predicament: the raping progress to which they were dedicated had to be achieved at the cost of dissociating themselves from the spiritual meaning that made nature for them ultimately worth preserving and exploring.

Here, the marvelous stasis of the Western photographs offered a relief. One could not claim, at that time any more than today, that the photograph was a product of art or of science. The evidence it furnished was chaotically material when compared with a painting’s, but also more inherently reliable. Much can be said of a photograph as an object of passive contemplation, yet it functioned as an active conquest of appearances. It acquainted viewers with the inspiring grandeurs of an unknown world, but the human mind itself did not configure them. The photograph, moreover, sliced into history, though it remained powerless to explain it. And these particular landscapes were exceptional because of the authority with which they warded off the sense that they were typically fragmented examples of their kind. Their composure and their stillness did not look stamped on, but rather as an inevitable whole trace of, a scene; and it was as if nature conspired over and over again, from one range to another, to make the moment of apprehension an endless one. This is largely a religious sensation—the seizure from flux of a privileged state of being, the “stepping from the wheel,” as the Veddic scholars called it.

Yet, if photographic experience had more accessibility, among far wider audiences, than “high” art, it was also more unpredictable. A painting and a photograph are both cultural artifacts, but are used in quite different ways. The photograph is in the culture; the painting is thought to exhibit the culture. Free, then, to emit as many meanings as it will, with its unattached values and its implications as shallow and as deep as the world itself, the photo becomes the implement of successive ideologies, and even thrives above and beyond the precise, but often mute determinations of its maker. Since the photograph has such a dissolving effect upon categories, it is, in many ways, the most self-revealing invention of a 19th century made tense by the need to reconcile its opposing themes of withdrawal from and engagement with reality.

I am not suggesting that the Metropolitan photos are noncommittal, or the outcome of anonymous, interchangeable handicraft. At the formative stage of their genre, a pattern of decisions as to cut of frame, vantage, and light distinguishes each individual as he makes his mark through an uncharted realm. Watkins, the precursor, and Muybridge, for example, gaze over the same paradisiacal ground, but diverge from each other in the ways they want it to address the viewer. With Watkins, who feels most at home with a centralized visual situation, there tends to be either a “proscenium” or a foreground area that precedes the motif, so that you seem to contact it over a gap without becoming conscious of your own placement. Muybridge, however, wants the scene to pull at your feet, or lets the ground drop from under them. His eye organizes a diffusion of undressed, shaggy accents across space, so that the gargantuan peaks, domes, falls, and firs of Yosemite abruptly and intimately appoint the neighborhood. Watkins is rather unforthcoming in this respect, believing that the prudent, massy wall-like quality of El Capitan quells its incipient drama, and everywhere his impulse is to make his densities compact and to stabilize directions. Given the spectacular scenery that confronts him, he underplays his hand. Yet both men finally give to the convenient Sublime of Yosemite the open-eyed scope of a diorama.

In Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho, the profuse emptiness of the landscape was interrupted by misshapen forms. As it was trained on this irrational horizon, the camera could rarely slake its thirst for boundaries. In recognizing this, O’Sullivan’s images derive their immediacy on an emotional rather than a compositional level. They are designed by an imbalance—too much or little weight and openness—that is vaguely treacherous. With him, the fanciful aberrations of the earth invoke an abstract panic.

In Jackson and Russell, they are Cyclopean landmarks noted in the spirit of an Odyssey. Both men are inclined to see the architecture of the rocky hills as an obstacle which human engineering—often enough enjoyed for its puniness—is in the act of parting open or getting around. Russell likes to contrast the railroad work—he was a reporter on its progress—with the disproportionate monuments, the granite citadels that loom over it. The tracks orient the eye purposefully inward, where, at mid-ground and more, it is confronted with obdurate stone, so that nature thrusts itself athwart your glance, or rather, your path. Russell is the poet of the Eastern linear mind beset by the intermittent Western masses, and he conveys remarkably the suspenseful impression of travel there—the eventual deflecting or tunneling of civilization through dumbly resistant material. His few figures, sprinkled over the landscape, appear to meditate on the intersections that transfix it. As for Jackson, a tree, a geyser, a crater, a peak, a crevice may each be picked out, one at a time, to be conferred with a dominating status in the topography. He is a specialist in establishing a respectful intimacy with extravagant landforms that repel it. He seeks their personal bearing through exhilarated light and shadow. The tiny, numbered white titles that occasionally identify his tableaux—Mountain of the Holy Cross, Garden of the Gods—turn geological specimens into lordly creations.

It is O’Sullivan who finally seems so utterly affected and possessed by the West that he photographs it with a high incidence of unpresentable images. An insightful passivity steals over his outlook and often robs his work of “angles”: that singular footing with which the country rewards its visitors in order that they discern its uplifting “otherness.” However it encouraged such viewpoints in others, O’Sullivan burrows within the recesses of this nature to live with a more typifying estrangement. That is why his work startles by the misbehavior of its silhouettes, their oppressive, chance-carved but extremely broad contrasts. He had descended into the Comstock shafts (as did Nadar into the Paris catacombs) and boated down the Colorado River in Arizona. He was on familiar terms with Jurassic sediment and the vagaries of basalt. From sites comparable to the ones O’Sullivan mined with his camera, Clyfford Still may have derived his jagged, gritty flat planes. And Smithson and Heiser must have scoured those areas too, on the lookout for their own mute, Whitmaniac grandeur. It is all very crushing and American.

As fine-grained and magnificently informing portrayals of the Western country, the post-Civil-War photos were rightly admired by their contemporaries. In that, alone, they accomplished a significant input for the history of photography, respected by scholars but not studied in detail, or organized coherently for viewers until this Metropolitan Museum show. Naef gives their documentary objectives their due, but he also considers them to have made up a “golden age” of landscape because the photographers enjoyed under government patronage a latitude and security sufficient to have pursued what we would consider today art-for-art’s-sake impulses. “Golden age” implies a Utopian as well as a pure and innocent epoch. And the show confines itself to that brief period when, liberated from catering to the more obvious appetites of tourists, the camera was often directed away from the picturesque to less marketable but more challenging motifs.

This is, of course, to put it socially. We can say as well that the landscape mode, compared with all the other contemporary genres in photography, was most conducive to the revelation of sheer, natural structure, and behind that, the claims of an abstract vision (best exemplified by O’Sullivan but also perceived by his comrades, who were in touch with each other’s work). As soon as we want to judge on that basis, we move from the “transparency” of photos to a consideration of their presence in terms of opacity, the relative merits of each image as it composes material, independent of what it records. Consciousness along such lines does appear in the earliest prints here, and grows in sophistication with the progress of the surveys. It was a privileged situation of which the artists took full advantage.

Going further, it might fairly be stated that only with the ESA photographs of the 1930s was such a comparable balance between the transparent and the opaque achieved. Both moments represent high-points of art sponsored by the U.S. or any modern government. Both lucidly resolved tensions which, while enormously influential on subsequent photography, were later transposed into far more preciously estheticized form. The 1860s-1870s outlook on the West, as I say, was tempered by an archaic consciousness that pictured before Eastern eyes the immensity of a barren frontier.

I suppose one could go on talking of these photographs in such a vein. But to do so would be to continue appreciating them. Those who do the history of art are passively habituated to think of it as self-contained, removed from or intrinsically untouched by that other history ... of human events. By and large, the causality of these historians is felt to be secure only in dealing with the evolution of ideated forms, not the experiences, or the interests which the forms serve. So, we have been schooled in deactivating our perception of what the art, consciously or not, does in its culture, in favor of idealist myths purporting to teach us what it is supposed to do.

Here, the photos of the “Era of Exploration” were generally diversionary. The barrenness of the land they surveyed was an attractive illusion that could be substantiated visually, but it is not borne out when the economic forces contending over it are recalled.

One first thinks of the Indians who had to be driven back. These peoples, who had a true reverence for their Western earth, were deprived of their ancestral lands, their foodstock as well as material basis, the buffalo, and their civic rights, by a military machine backed up by a repressive policy that shattered their existence as independent, nomadic tribes. All this was well under way before 1860; the task of Reconstruction was to pen them in reservations. As gold and silver were discovered in their areas, as increasing railroad workers needed to be fed, the Indians were pushed ever further, “pacified” by treaties that were rarely honored.

Miners, too, were to be found prospecting throughout the Western territories, creating impermanent bonanza towns that quickly folded, and mines that were taken over from them by large corporations that alone had the capital to exploit mineral resources. Something comparable happened to timber, for while the government gave tracts to shareholders, provided they seeded them, this proved extremely difficult on an individual basis, and great lumber companies were allowed to annex and destroy many of the forests that covered the Rockies and the Sierras.

Nor were the railroads, in their development, very different. As a standard text puts it: “Here was a clear illustration of the conflict between the idea of the West as a national heritage to be disposed of to deserving citizens and the concept of the region as a boundless prize to be gobbled up in giant chunks by interests powerful and determined enough to take it” (John Garraty, The American Nation). Exploitation and settlement, of course, could not proceed on the desired large scale without the extension of the railroads that had to be subsidized by the government. Not only were the lines given huge land grants that barred homesteaders (a swath 100 miles wide, crossing from Lake Superior to the Pacific, was prohibited to settlers), but gigantic loans in the form of government bonds were bestowed upon the Central and the Union Pacific for each mile of track laid, driving the companies to compete with each other against time. With speed the essence, the lines were “ill-constructed, over too-steep grades and too-sharp curves, and burdened with too-heavy debts” (Garraty).

The spanning of the continent by rail, completed at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869, where Leland Stanford, Muybridge’s later patron, drove in the golden spike, is manifested to us in views by Russell. It was a “historic” event and a ceremony of greed, heralding the rapacity that lay in store for the wilderness the box was depicting everywhere as an undefiled and open frontier. Indeed, it was open for the selfish foragers and profiteers who would inevitably fall victim to larger and better organized and more savage examples of their kind. Here—in the ceaseless criss-cross of their antagonism—was one lesson (the Second Coming as the advent of business) that Clarence King could have discovered for himself. The idyll created by Powell’s God, his “storm-born architect,” existed as a necessarily sublimated yearning in the minds of sensitive men, and it was propagated by imaginative photographers who were devoted to a reality as they saw it. But there did not yet obtain in their medium the technical conditions to cope with the heat of a moment, or the critical consciousness that would make that reality a historical one.

Max Kozloff