Volume 78, Number 52 | June 3 - 9, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


Photography

INTO THE SUNSET: PHOTOGRAPHY’S IMAGE OF THE AMERICAN WEST
Museum of Modern Art
11 W. 53rd St.
Wed., Thu., Sat.-Mon., 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Fri., 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Jun. 8 until 8 p.m.
Through Jun. 8 $20; $16 for seniors; $12 for students
www.moma.org

MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, NEW YORK

Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Still #43” (1979) gelatin silver print, 7 9/16 x 9 7/16 in., offers a contemporary and self-conscious interpretation of the myth of the West.

Manifest Destiny

When America headed west, where did it arrive?

By Gregory Montreuil

“Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West,” an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art running through June 8, reveals much about the American psyche and incorporates an astonishing range of photographs. The trajectory portrayed is sweeping, despite a relative brief 140-year span, and swings from idealization to disillusion.

The juxtaposition of these wide-ranging images provides clues about the role of photography in Americans’ fascination with the West.

Timothy O’Sullivan’s “Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada” (1867), which shows a lonely wagon pulled by four horses traversing the desert, conveys the courage of early pioneers in braving such vast, challenging terrain. One hundred years later, Irving Penn, in “Hell’s Angels, San Francisco,” (1967) portrays another sort of pioneer who has conquered the roads.

Andrew J. Russell’s photograph “Construction Train Bear River” (1868) points to the entrepreneurial spirit of the intrepid pioneers and the lure of resources and riches. Pristine images of a plentiful Eden give way to Daruis Kinsey’s ” Felling a Fir Tree, 51 Feet in Circumference” (1906). As organized transport made it possible to extract resources and move people, the West’s transformation inevitably advanced.

Many of the photos show the hardscrabble nature of the West, pitting man against overwhelming nature. Stacy Studio’s image of “Buffalo Bill, Pawnee Bill and the entire Wild West Show and Far East troupe, in front of tents” (1909) spread the West’s allure by bringing its myth on the road to those who couldn’t be there.

People who inhabit Western photos — including outlaws, miners, native peoples, religious sects, and adventurers — embody a common theme that this is a land of survivors. Graciela Iturbide’s “Cholas I, White Fence, East Los Angeles” (1986) portrays a group of four Hispanic women with one child and no lack of tough attitude.

Other sections of the exhibition focus on unbridled development — cars, endless highways, housing developments, and parking lots by masters Edward Weston, Edward Ruscha, and William Garnett. One wonders if paradise is lost. But there are also contemporary dreamers, misfits, and Hollywood starlets and wannabes. Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Still #43” (1979) and Richard Prince’s “Untitled (Cowboy)” (2003) explore the myth of the West with self conscious intent.

When we turn our view westward, all is not majestic. The lure of the West remains constant, yet it is hard to imagine how quickly it has developed with seemingly little thought of planning for the larger good. The triumph of white civilization coupled with photography’s role in the quick and astonishing transformation of the West created more questions than answers.

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