by Lane Wallace
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently running an exhibit called "Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West." The exhibit's premise is that photography and the American West essentially grew up together, and that photography played a key role in "shaping our collective imagination of the West." But one of the key questions raised both in the exhibit and in this Slate review of it, is: did that photography help create a myth of the West that isn't true, or isn't reflective of the full reality of the place?
Is each of us, as the Slate review put it, "the victim of a great Western fantasy"?
A couple of thoughts (one here, one in a later post). First: Without question, photography has helped form our vision of what "The American West" is like. Just as photography and stories, whether journalistic, cinematic, or artistic, construct our visions of event, place, or group of people we don't know from personal experience. But do photographers create myth? Or is myth something we create ourselves, from a lack of connective detail in between the selected moments a photographer ... or writer ... captures?
In the case of Hollywood movies and advertisements, of course, the myth-making is both clear and intentional. For anyone who saw "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" one too many times and has any lingering thoughts of how romantic it might have been to be a woman on the Western Frontier, I suggest Pioneer Women--writings and journal entries from actual women on the frontier, collected by Joanna Stratton--as a sobering reality check.
But myth or fantasy, like the aura of "fame" surrounding celebrities, is an illusion that requires a little distance, and a limited amount of information, to maintain. I, too, had a somewhat unrealistic vision of California and the American West ... until I moved there. But after 18 years there, I have a fuller context in which to put the MoMa exhibit's photos. And in that context, they're not misrepresentational. Each one is simply a piece taken out of a vast and multi-faceted puzzle. True in its particulars, just not the whole story. Any more than a single photo of my niece on my refrigerator tells the whole story of the person she is. If you really want to know the reality of a place, or person, you have to fill in the dots between the images yourself--not from a distance, but up close, in person. More on this in a bit ...
(Photograph by Dorothea Lange, The Road West, New Mexico, 1938)