Sunday, January 31, 2016

The American West in Toledo

The Toledo Museum of Art is showing a nice little exhibition of photographs of the American West - "The American West - Photographs of a new Frontier," which runs until late May 2016. All of the photographs are from the TMA collection, and span the early days of Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton F. Watkins and William Henry Jackson, to the more contemporary Frank Gohlke and Howard Bond. In between, there are a lot of albumin prints by Frank Jay Haynes of Yellowstone and other parks. (Haynes was the official photographer of the Northern Pacific Railway, and the Haynes images were donated to TMA by Bill Becker, a somewhat local antiquarian image expert and collector.) There are also a selection of stereo views and a viewer. The stereo views were a booming business in the late 1800s - early 1900s, offering the public an opportunity to see these amazing places in b&w 3-D. Of course, the stereos also were a way to attract tourists to the wonderful attractions of the far west, and especially, Yellowstone. The exhibit also features a couple of beautiful photogravures of Native Americans by the unmatched efforts of Edward S. Curtis. Moving more towards the present, there are examples from Manual Alvarez Bravo (Window on the Agave is a gem of a photograph), Laura Gilpin, William Clift, and others. Of course, no exhibit would be complete without something from Ansel Adams, and I think the examples that the TMA used are perfect in expressing the range of subject and treatment by Adams, with some personal favorites: Moonrise over Hernandez, Grand Tetons and Snake River, and Clearing Winter Storm. There are two photographs by Edward Weston, and certainly not examples of his best, but Tomales Bay is an example of form that so interested him. Brett Weston's Mendenhall Glacier is a fine example of his work with contrasty subjects, reflections, patterns, and abstraction. The images from Frank Gohlke - in the modern era, are really beautiful and haunting, even when they are showing the destructive effects of Mt. St. Helens.

The exhibit does a pretty good job of showing the evolution of not only the photographic process, but also of the the documentary style of the early landscapes to the more nuanced and interpretive images of more recent photographers. Early on, photographers such as O'Sullivan and Jackson were confronted with an unparalleled opportunity to document the awesome landscapes of the West. Those early images led to protecting places such as Yellowstone and Yosemite. The power of the photograph was far better than words or paintings to convince Congress how those amazing and unique places were deserving of becoming National Parks.

On the technology side of things -- it is hard to imagine the effort that was needed to make wet-plate photographs (and not tiny ones. either) of the west. We take a lot for granted now. However, the large-format camera rules in extracting the detail and grand scale of the western landscape.

Take a trip to the Toledo Museum of Art and see the West through the lens of those that were there over the last 150 years. The TMA has a great place to eat lunch, including beer and wine right on the premises. If you are there before the end of February, you'll also want to see a small exhibit called "The City" in the print gallery, and it features etchings, block prints, and photographs of various cities.

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