Aside from the thorny subject of race, there’s perhaps been no other aspect of the national culture more contested and argued over than the American West. Even before the spread of photography, dime novels and steel engravings transmitted legends of gamblers and gunslingers, and indigenous natives who were at once noble and bloodthirsty. But it was the camera that revolutionized our ability to mythologize the West, to capture not only its winners and losers, heroes and villains, but also its magnificent natural beauty. And while still technology eventually led to motion pictures and an entire industry getting its start with stories of Cowboys and Indians, one can argue that the singular photographic image has remained vital to defining the West and our ever-changing notions about it.
“Into The Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American” at the Museum of Modern Art through June 8, provides plenty of ammunition for such an argument. One view are over 150 original prints, dating from 1850 to 2008. Depicting the West old and new, they are hung next to or near one another without regards to chronology. The effect overall—beyond the host of questions raised by placing, say, images of nomadic Native Americans in the same room as a group portrait of Hells Angels—is to re-inforce the familiar notion that the West is less of a place than it is a state of mind.
The shows catalogs the various narratives used over the years to frame the story of our westward expansion, from yesterday’s “Manifest Destiny” to today’s “Sunbelt.” And it reveals, too, how the aims of Western photography have evolved, from capturing the concrete—Ansel Adams’s nature scenes—to signifying the meta—Richard Prince’s cowboys appropriated from Marlboro cigarette ads. My personal faves tend to be the images that exist somewhere in between. Stephen Shore’s U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon. July 21, 1973, for example, shows an old billboard on the side of a two-lane road with a picture of distant snow-covered mountain range. Shore snaps the sign so that it lines up perfectly with horizon stretching beyond it. Joel Sternfeld’s After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California, pictures a serenely suburban American dream (modern, adobe-style houses; desert palms; purple hills in the background) rudely interrupted by the surreal intrusion of a massive sinkhole.
Taken as whole, “Into the Sunset,” demonstrates how history and fantasy combine to dissolve geography into a chimera: That in the century and more since the closing of the frontier, the West hasn’t been won—and never will be.
Image: Stephen Shore (American, born 1947). U.S. 97, South of Klamath Falls, Oregon. July 21, 1973. Chromogenic color print (printed 2005), 17 1/4 x 21 1/2” (43.8 x 54.6 cm). Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York. (c) 2009 Stephen Shore