Reading the West 10-12-09
It has been said that a photograph is worth a thousand words. If that is true, then “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924,” is worth roughly 150,000 words, not to mention three-quarters of a century, and the entire era that we would consider the “development” of West.
Most of these photographic faces “promise to reveal individuality,” Richard White writes, adding, “[T]hey can just as easily deliver a disguise.”
And White goes on, “The thousands of words that these pictures supposedly eliminate reappear in the secret life of the portrait – the details about the sitter the portrait seeks to disguise or distort. It is the words, more than the portrait that rescue the individual from being merely a type.”
Thus the soft-focus photographs of American Indians by Edward Curtis, the surreptitiously taken photographs of the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown by Arnold Genthe, and other images often do more to render subjects as “an exotic and timeless people” than to cast them in their true lives, White believes.
The practice of providing the Indians with “appropriate” clothes – those that fit a public perception not necessarily reality – meant their lasting images were often nowhere close to their real lives. Indians who never wore elaborate headdresses, had them on in photographs. This practice of making the subject adhere to the public perception simply furthered to marginalize them in the eyes of Euro-American society, author Frank H. Goodyear III, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, writes in his introductory essay, “Portraiture in the Photography of the American West.”
Goodyear’s book brings us the faces of frontier people. Stern and often stiff, they wear the high collars and hoop skirts, buckskins and ceremonial feathers of another era. Some of the names – even the faces you will recognize: George Armstrong Custer, Sitting Bull, Teddy Roosevelt, Annie Oakley, Brigham Young, The Wild Bunch. Others you won’t, though you will know of them, of their work: Horace Greeley, who urged people to “Go West” and fueled the rush to Colorado gold fields 150 years ago; Helen Hunt Jackson, Indian reformer and author of “Century of Dishonor”; Levi Strauss, who bought us the style of jeans we still wear; Domingo Ghiradelli, an Italian confectioner who, thankfully, brought his chocolates to our shores.
All these people and the other 120 or so pictured in this book, took part in creating the West. They were leaders, statesmen, soldiers, laborers, activists, criminals, and more. They stopped before the cameras that were carried by men like Curtis and Genthe, Alexander Hayden, William Henry Jackson, and Timothy O’Sullivan. You have no doubt seen some of their work, even if you don’t realize who took the photographs.
The photographs are a story of the West itself as the photos show not only the people, but also the places – in many cases the work – of their lives. There are pictures of mining towns and mining operations, of frontier outposts on the prairie, the building of the transcontinental railroad, and adobe ruins. There aren’t a lot of images of women, no doubt because in this early period, women were harder to find in the West. Or was it perhaps because the photographers wanted to keep their lens on those whom they perceived to be the leaders, the developers, the builders of the West?
These photographs come primarily from the collection of the National Portrait gallery. The book includes an introduction by the author, plus two essays, one by the author and the other written by Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University and the author of “It’s your Misfortune and None of my Own”: A New History of the American West and Remembering Ahanagran: Storytelling in a Family’s Past.”
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