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Know the West

Perpetual ‘manifest destiny’ on the shores of Santa Monica

A photographer examines westward expansion in tourist-saturated California.


In West of West: A Photographic Exploration of the Edge of America, photographer Sarah Lee documents the tourist-saturated shores of Santa Monica in Los Angeles. It’s a destination that, like much of California, generations of Americans visit each year, emulating a kind of “westward expansion,” much as settlers once set out on horseback with dreams of striking it big. That’s perhaps the idea we are meant to come away with: the annual tourist migration as a way to renew the passage — the ritual — of “manifest destiny,” fulfilling an idyllic American fantasy of independence, leisure and paradise.

But what is westward settler expansion without Indigenous displacement? “Native Americans” are mentioned just twice in the introduction, which says nothing of America’s genocidal past. The book opens with the story of the Mayflower and a painting of settlers on a dusty trail, laying claim to new, prosperous lands. In the book’s contemporary photographs, the direct flash of Lee’s camera and the overpowering sun on the beach illuminate a calm repose at journey’s end. The tourists sprawl on their stomachs, resting and dreaming. They made it.


But colonialism is not just a dusty memory. In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom officially apologized to tribes for California’s history of violent state-sanctioned “genocide.” He also signed an executive order calling for a Truth and Healing Commission to produce a report on the state’s historical relationship with Indigenous peoples by 2024. In omitting past and present colonialism, the photographs and accompanying essay in West of West feel incomplete. The West was not an uninhabited land that welcomed the settlers’ westward expansion. Yet maybe that’s the dream on the face of each napping beachgoer. 

West of West: Travels along the edge of America
By Sarah Lee and Laura Barton
176 pages, hardcover, $26.10
Unbound, 2019.



Kalen Goodluck is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.