Photography and the New American Mythology
The closest we have ever come to visualizing the act of meditation may be the still photograph.
Moving pictures tell stories; paintings often explore the cultural consequences of history. But the still camera points its mechanical eye at the world as it is, and may penetrate through flux and distraction to a core of perception. A good photograph is a moment of nearly perfect concentration, with the eyes finding order within the most confusing thickets and rocky chaos.
Since the camera was invented in 1820, photographers have been on a quest for subjects that might reveal the sacred and the spiritual in nature. A group of Americans found their photographic Zen in the American Southwest around 1930, just as the country was plunging into its darkest period of the 20th century. They sparked a debate about whether photography should document the human condition or provide an escape from it.
The darkness that settled over New York City in the 1930s was due largely to the Great Depression. The character of America seemed impugned by the excesses of the Roaring ’20s that led to the big crash, a notion underscored by Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Photographers who lived in big cities like New York, such as Walker Evans, Bernice Abbott and Weegee, documented the plight of those betrayed by Wall Street. Theirs was a vision circumscribed by the broken promises of enlightened humanism. Some of the most famous photos in this style include the working-class realism of Abbott’s “Blossom Restaurant” and “Bread Store,” from Changing New York, a 1938 Works Progress Administration publication; Margaret Bourke-White’s somber study of work in Soviet Russia, “Tractor Factory, Stalingrad, 1930”; and Alfred Stieglitz’s “From the Shelton, West, 1935,” taken from an apartment window, with the spires of Manhattan radiating a cold Depression-era glitter.
Another breed of photographer moved west to a land of deserts and mountains unchanged by the economic forces ravaging cities and farm towns. Ansel Adams’ photographs of snow-draped mountains and wild rivers captured a different America, one wrought by natural forces and untainted by greed. The stark cliffs and layered sky of “Thunderstorm, Chama Valley, New Mexico, 1937” was a metaphor for purity and the remoteness of human interference. Critics complained about the absence of human significance in his work, i.e., the social dilemma of the displaced and unemployed recorded by Evans, Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange for the WPA. Adams would have none of it. He told Edward Weston in 1935, “I feel that all propaganda-expression is transitory. But a rock seems to last some little time!” Even so, “If it’s Communism—or Fascism—I am ready for it, but Jeezus Kriste!!!!!—I want to keep the work clean.”
Adams opened a short-lived gallery in San Francisco, modeled on Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery in New York, to counter the “sneering attitude in the East about California,” he told Paul Strand in 1933. “I would rather live here and work here than in any other American city I have seen—and I have seen most of them. There is a vitality and a purpose, and a magnificent landscape.” He told Stieglitz in another letter (Oct. 3, 1933) that New York was a “slowly dissolving inferno … . Noise, sweat, stink, more noise—this is the Center of Civilization (God help Civilization)—no Earth in sight.” Not far from San Francisco “is a land and sky that would be heroic if given the chance.”
Stieglitz recognized Adams’ power and hosted a one-man show of his work at An American Place in 1936. But Stieglitz politely declined Adams’ invitation to photograph the West; Stieglitz preferred New York and the landscape around his family summer house at Lake George to the Rockies and Yosemite National Park.
Unlike his urban colleagues, Adams opposed development, and it showed in his work. Adams’ photographs of the snowy crests of the Sierra Nevadas made the Flatiron Building, the subject of early photographs by Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, seem a trifle of human handiwork against the wonders of eternity. Adams told Stieglitz in a 1936 letter that he could see both the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge from his window, which threatening to “open up a vast territory in which all the miserable fungus of ‘development’ will flourish. … I don’t want to photograph them—I would rather work on an old fence with moss on it.”
As Audrey Goodman notes in Translating Southwestern Landscapes (2002), her insightful history of the mythologizing and commercialization of the Southwest early in the 20th century, seizing upon a heroic past was nothing new. It began in the 1880s almost on the heels of the last Indians leaving the territory. “In late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, the Southwest emerged as a modern battleground between dreams of self-transformation and fears of irreversible assimilation.” Put another way, the landscape was the source of some undefined strength that would nourish and rebuild American character in a troubled age, even as it was being assimilated into a culture of greed and exploitation. No matter who dragged a tripod and box camera into the region, each felt it was a place formed by antediluvian gods and forces outside the European imagination. By 1890, millions of stereoscopic views of western landscapes were on sale at tourist spots, and the widespread popularity of the images may have played a part in establishing the national park system in 1906. The West was far more than a mythic landscape; it had become part of the deep, self-constituting American identity.
The western photographers were, like architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the inheritors of Emersonian transcendentalism, the optimistic doctrine that nature speaks directly to the human soul through its forms. Adams, Weston, Bourke-White, Strand, Eliot Porter and Laura Gilpin—the anti-pictorial school of photographers who rejected the romantic style of landscape portraiture—were drawn to a region of Jurassic bones and vanished civilizations. It was like Freud’s discovery of the unconscious to find this landscape reaching back to the dawn of life, a world only Darwin had hinted at, but which now offered itself as the raw, wild, ancient basis in which New World consciousness was rooted. Photographers were well ahead of poets in seizing the epic grandeur of wild America, on which, to borrow a famous line from William Carlos Williams, “so much depends.”
While mountains and high deserts stood for an inviolate California, photographers turned to Texas’ Rio Grande and Big Bend as the great symbols of desert country. Adams went to Big Bend in 1947 to capture the magnificent “Burro Mesa and the Chisos Mountains” and a luminous Rio Grande in “Sand bar, Rio Grande.” “Boquillas, Mexico, from Boquillas Canyon Overlook” peers deep into the craggy, parched horizon. All three have become iconic images. Edward Weston had trekked along the Texas coast in 1941 to seize on the relentless flatness of cotton fields and the hulks of oil tankers at Port Arthur. Laura Gilpin shot Paradise Valley behind the spidery arms of an ocotillo in “Paradise Valley, near the Big Bend, Texas” in 1946. Her “Rio Grande Yields Its Surplus to the Sea” (1947), with the river looking like spilled mercury pouring onto a mirror, is among the finest photographs of the Texas landscape ever made.
It wasn’t just the majesty of the landscapes that drew photographers west; as compelling were the human lives that had been formed by the region’s geology and extreme climate. Gilpin, a pioneering woman photographer, was not the only woman attracted to Navajo and Pueblo cultures; a long history of women photographing indigenous life in the Southwest may be found in Bonnie Miller’s Trading Gazes: Euro-American Women Photographers and Native North Americans, 1880-1940. In such faces, formed by deserts and volcanic ranges, they found a life older than the Bible. The cliff-dwelling Anasazi and the isolated world of the Hopi struck many Europeans as the end of the European West and the beginning of an American one—primal, impenetrable and a fertile source of ideas on which to graft a new culture.
It was inevitable that the camera would migrate west with the pioneers, but no one anticipated how this epic scenery and primordial human presence would bring American photography to maturity, to a climactic moment in which a mechanical device would reveal realities that transcended European consciousness. The city was man-made, but the towers and canyons of the desert Southwest were shaped by forces that dwarfed the genius of Michelangelo and DaVinci, vistas as strange and otherworldly as the stars that hung in the summer sky. What we need now is a history of American photography that puts both halves of the story together, to show how Europe was foremost in our pictures until 1930 or so, when the West veered into view to plant the seed of wilderness in the American soul.
Paul Christensen is the author of the memoirs West of the American Dream: An Encounter with Texas and Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence. His new collection of poems, On Being Human, will be issued by Wings Press next year. He writes frequently for Antioch Review, Southwest Review, and The Texas Observer.