Print the Legend: Photography and the American West, is not another coffee-table gallery of black-and-white mountain vistas or solemn American Indian portraits. Rather, Martha Sandweiss’ book looks at how the new art of photography shaped the nation’s view of the West in the 19th century.

Photos are not the accurate historical records they appear to be, writes Sandweiss. In fact, Western photographs didn’t even become popular until photographers learned to manipulate their work — especially with captions and text — to tell a story of the West as a “blank slate” for white settlers to farm, mine or otherwise exploit.

Photographs also reinforced the myth that Western Indians would quietly fade into history. Some photos did this by omitting Indians from the “virgin” landscape: The photos used to support Yellowstone’s designation as a national park in 1872 excluded any images of the tribes that lived and hunted in the area. Others pictured Indian subjects as a solemn, “disappearing” race — gazing into a Western future where they would not exist.

Central to the book is the idea that a picture is worth a different thousand words to each new viewer: A vista that once lured prospectors may inspire today’s viewer to protect wilderness; a staged “vanishing Indian” photograph can link its subject to his or her modern descendants. As we encounter old photographs in books, TV documentaries and elsewhere, we would be wise to remember how malleable they are.

Print the Legend: Photography and the American West
by Martha A. Sandweiss
402 pages, hardcover $39.95.
Yale University Press, 2002.