New York

“American Landscapes”

“American Landscapes,” a show that John Szarkowski chose himself out of his own collection, goes over familiar terrain. The first exhibition Szarkowski did as director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department was a landscape show, and innumerable restrospectives and surveys have followed in the nearly two decades since. To go back and say something original now about territory that’s been so thoroughly covered seems difficult. Yet Szarkowski succeeds precisely because he knows both the subject and his museum’s collection well. While we also know before going to the show who the photographers in it will be—William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, et al.—and even what kind of imagery we can expect from each, there are still surprises here. There are some photographs I’ve never seen before that are among the best their makers ever did. There is in Szarkowski’s selection of the pictures a refinement of his ideas about landscape that makes the show into a new and subtle essay on this subject.

Among the show’s surprises is a landscape by Edward Sheriff Curtis. In this picture, entitled The Mythic Stone—Hidatsa, 1908, a small boulder sits alone in a field of weeds under overcast skies. Neither the light nor the landscape have the drama usually associated with photography of the West. But light from somewhere, or at least a distinct lightness, does appear on the top of the stone, which, because of the lack of shadow, seems to float above the ground. Curtis came west late, after Wounded Knee, when what Helen Hunt Jackson called our “century of dishonor” was drawing to a close. The last days of the Plains tribes were marked by mysticism born out of desperation, by cults like the Ghost Shirt with its frantic, abandoned dancing. Curtis’ 1908 landscape might almost be a summation of this history. The stone’s magic is visible in the photograph; yet the uninflected light that makes it visible also makes the flat, vacant land seem indifferent to such magic. Through this combination of testimony and denial, of negation within a revelation, the photograph conveys a sense of the tragedy for which the West was then the setting.

Curtis’ photograph is remarkable for the strangeness it imparts to the landscape. More remarkable still are early photographs that make this landscape appear not strange, but beautiful. Inconceivable though it may seem today, at the time photographers first went west real imagination was needed to find beauty in “them thar hills.” The idea that there could be beauty in wild nature was a relatively recent, strictly Romantic novelty. At best people were still ambivalent about “mountain gloom and mountain glory,” as the title of Marjorie Nicholson’s classic study put it. And if civilization was just getting used to the possibility that the Alps might be satisfying to look at, the notion that the Grand Canyon or the Tetons might, too, remained farfetched. When John Colter, one of the discoverers of Yellowstone, described the place upon his return to St. Louis, locals referred to it, legend has it, as “Colter’s Hell.”

“American Landscapes” gives a hint of Colter’s problem in William Henry Jackson’s Mammoth Hot Springs, North from Upper Basins, which shows a landscape that is, while beautiful, also satanic. But facing it in the catalogue is Charles Roscoe Savage’s Lake Angeline. On the lake’s shores we see two men lounging at ease, contemplating the primeval forest with calm, indeed with equanimity. Their attitude is what the classic early photography of the West reflects, none of it better than two pictures in this show: Jackson’s Upper Twin Lake, Colorado, 1875, and an untitled John K. Hillers picture of 1872–78. Both photographs wring from their subjects a symmetry, and thus an implication of harmony in nature, that is essential to 19th-century ideas about beauty. The framing of the photograph has been made to coincide with the Victorian frame of mind. As a result of the symmetries, other kinds of balance form as well, between the nearest and farthest parts of the picture, between the deadness of the skies and the lively detail of the foregrounds.

Skies looked blank this way because of the limitations of photographic emulsions and the lenses’ inability to penetrate haze. This also gave distant mountains the pale, apparitional quality that they have in both these photographs. It’s a quality enhanced in Jackson’s picture by his use of the reflection the mountains make in the lake, and both photographs play off the mountains against the foreground. In their illusoriness, the mountains appear to be the spirit world that the Indian nations took them for. They have the sublime beauty that the Romantic imagination had taught the 19th century to appreciate. The foregounds contrast with this. They are less ethereal because of the high relief created by long shadows at the bottom of Jackson’s picture and the rich, articulate darkness in Hillers’. If we can see in the distant mountains the inspiration and majesty the photographers felt when they contemplated this landscape, we can also see, in the closer look at the terrain they give us in the foreground, how hard the journey was to get here. We can sense the physical struggle the photographers have had with the landscape as well as the spiritual nourishment it provides. The photographs’ ultimate beauty lies in this completeness with which they describe the photographers’ experience.

These 19th-century photographs of the West comprise less than a third of “American Landscapes,” but everything else seems to follow from them. In the catalogue, the first image of the next section is an Edward Steichen picture of a wood lot that has much the same, flat light as Curtis’ Hidatsa. The difference we feel in Steichen’s picture is that the values of the earlier photographers’ imagery suddenly get self-conscious. In Steichen’s photograph, the light we see in Curtis’ becomes an effect, an art statement rather than an archaeological one. Gradually, the show reveals how other conceptions of photography and other reactions to the American landscape evolved—how, for instance, the photographer’s subject eventually became not nature, but the despoilment of nature. Yet the 19th-century work continues to dominate the show. It transcends everything that came after it.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.