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