Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth-Century American West

By Friedel, Megan | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth-Century American West


Friedel, Megan, Oregon Historical Quarterly


MEANINGFUL PLACES: LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHERS IN THE NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICAN WEST

by Rachel McLean Sailor

University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 2014. Photos, maps, notes, bibliography, index.

240 pages. $45.00 cloth.

Arguably too much has already been written about William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins, and other great " masters" of nineteenth-century landscape photography of the American West. Their work, produced in large scale, distributed widely, and intended to be viewed by national audiences, has stayed in the common consciousness, influencing our myth of the frontier. Yet in focusing on these "gargantuan curio" images (as Ansel Adams termed them), scholars have largely overlooked hundreds of other landscape photographers working in the West during the same period, whose work is of equal aesthetic and historic interest.

Rachel McLean Sailor's Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth-Century American West is therefore a welcome arrival. Sailor is interested in "community photographers" of the West, men (she discusses no women, although women photographers did work in the nineteenth-century American West) who photographed local landscapes for local audiences (p. xix). These men, she argues, were not "promoting place" to outsiders, as Jackson et. al were, but "defining place" for their own communities (p. xix, xxxvi). In other words, local photographers acted as community boosters, making images that created a local pride of place and allowed residents to establish communal claims to their own frontier landscapes.

This compelling thesis is laid out in five case studies, following the work of photographers in Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, and Arizona from the 1850s through the 1900s. Most engaging are the stories of Solomon Butcher's fifteen-year effort to create a pictorial history of the residents and homesteads of Custer County, Nebraska, and that of Oregon's Peter Britt and his 1874 photos of Crater Lake. In both of these chapters, Sailor clearly delineates how both photographers, acting on marketing savvy and local pride, created photographs that celebrated both the history and the future of his frontier region.

In other areas, however, Meaningful Places missteps. Sailor depends on her ability to prove, with historical data, how each photographer's work was viewed and received by his community. She is not always able to do so. This is most evident in her chapter on St. Louis photographer Thomas Easterly, whose daguerreotypes documented the destruction of Big Mound, a Native American burial site that sat in the heart of the city. …

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