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12 June 2010 – 07 February 2011
Palm Springs Art Museum

A comparative view of the American West from 1866 to the present, this exhibition examines the role of photography in popularizing divergent ideas and documenting changing visions of the West. Since the mid-nineteenth century, the West has stood out as a destination and center for photographic activity. Spectacular vistas combined with unique land formations and bright, clear light attracted early photographers, who recorded the natural beauty of the West for the enjoyment of local and East coast audiences. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Carleton Watkins, famous for his large format photographs, created images of the majestic views of Yosemite. This appeal for images of wonder and exploration influenced a second generation of twentieth-century landscape photographers, predisposing them to the notion of the West as a sublime and spiritual “Garden of Eden.” Photographers like J. Smeaton Chase, Stephen H. Willard and Edward S. Curtis found a “new frontier” in the most unlikely place—the desert regions of the West. While Chase and Willard focused their lenses on capturing the spiritual essence of what was perceived to be a barren landscape, Curtis turned his attention to what he and many believed to be a vanishing ancient culture of the Native Americans.

Modernists Ansel Adams and Brett Weston credited the natural light and wide-open landscape of California as a major influence in the development of the sharp-focused, modernist style of photography pioneered by Group f/64. Contemporary photographers have introduced new techniques into their images of the West. Influenced by Thomas Moran and other epic painters of the American western landscape, David Hockney introduced the photo collage in his large-scale panoramic view of the Grand Canyon, foreshadowing the widespread use of digital photography. More recent photographers such as An-My Lê, Terry Falke, Richard Misrach, Jack Fulton and Mark Klett present us with notions of natural beauty and grandeur that contrast with the human impact on the environment. Influenced by the nineteenth-century tradition of photographing engineering and railroad developments in the West, Mark Ruwedel’s images of the remnants of these early railroad routes and the legacy of their imprint on the land comes full circle.

Organized from the museum’s permanent holdings focusing on recent acquisitions, this exhibition includes 45 photographs by 35 artists from this important and growing collection.

This exhibition was organized by the Palm Springs Art Museum.