Photography and the American West have a lot in common. Both were “discovered” by Europeans in recent centuries, despite the fact that neither was exactly new. The camera obscura existed in the ancient world; photography only came into being when chemicals were invented that allowed images to be fixed to metal plates or paper. And, as curator Eva Respini points out in the catalog to MOMA’s “Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West,” the area west of the Mississippi River had been occupied for thousands of years. It was only named “the West by the most recent people to settle there: Americans.”
Nevertheless, the two came of age together, since it was “the perfect medium with which to construct an American identity.” Constructing an exhibition that offers an enlightened, evenhanded account of expansionism, outlaws, logging, Mormons, the gold rush, and postwar development—as well as photography’s role in all of this—is another story. So Respini has performed a bit of curatorial magic: She’s gotten rid of history.
How does that work? It’s called the thematic hang. Instead of sticking to chronology, you group objects or images together based on formal properties—color, shape, size, medium, or subject. MOMA helped put the concept on the map earlier this decade when chief curator of painting and sculpture John Elderfield briefly rearranged the permanent collection, pairing, for instance, a Cézanne bather with a Rineke Dijkstra photo of a teenager in a bathing suit. The modern collection is back to the quasi-traditional historical display, but a recent, freewheeling version of the thematic hang could be seen with Vik Muniz’s “Rebus” installation—which was, incidentally, co-curated with Respini and occupied the same gallery right before “Into the Sunset.”
Respini has divided the photographs into two general categories, “Land” and “People,” and hung them in arrangements that break down into further themes. For instance, if you enter the gallery and head clockwise, the first wall is given over to landscapes. First is a misty pictorialist view of Yosemite Valley taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn around 1911. Next is Laura Gilpin’s Sunrise on the Desert (1921), followed by—jumping 20 years—Edward Weston’s Quaker State Oil (1941) sign sitting alone in the Arizona desert. Joel Sternfeld’s 1982 photo of an abandoned uranium refinery on a Navajo reservation in Arizona is in this same sequence, as is a photo of a moonrise by Ansel Adams. Rather than suggesting a historical continuum—or rupture—a common thread runs through the pictures, reinforcing ideas of the West as stark, isolated, and majestic—but also a bit menacing.
As you walk through the show, the thematic pattern repeats itself. Another grouping, in which the common motif is a road or railway receding to a vanishing point, includes Dorothea Lange’s iconic gelatin silver print The Road West, New Mexico (1938) nestled between Andrew Joseph Russell’s 1869 albumen silver print of railroad tracks and David Hockney’s 1986 color photocollage of Pearblossom Highway in Southern California.
Postwar prosperity is captured by Ed Ruscha, Garry Winogrand, Robert Adams, Julius Shulman, and Sternfeld, while ravaged landscapes include Frank Gohlke and Darius Kinsey’s images of deforestation from different eras, Robert Adams’s Burning Oil Sludge North of Denver, Colorado (1970), and the marquee picture of the show (on the catalog cover), Sternfeld’s chilling 1979 image of a California neighborhood ripped apart by a flash flood.
Images of people are grouped in a similarly free-form, divorced-from-time-and-place fashion. A wall of family photographs runs the gamut from 19th-century Mormon settlers to an informal 1972 Robert Owens image of a couple and baby inside their home, with power lines looming outside the window. Drifters and the disenfranchised—rent boys, porn actors, drag queens, the homeless—get ample wall space, while the section devoted to “tribes” gets even more creative: Irving Penn’s 1967 photograph of San Francisco Hell’s Angels hangs next to Edward Curtis’s 1906 image of Hopi women, near a tintype of Butch Cassidy dressed up and posing in a studio with the Wild Bunch, circa 1892.
The last wall in the show (or the first, depending on your entrance strategy) highlights the artificialness both of image-making and Western identity. What does it mean to be a “Wyoming Cow-Boy,” a late 19th-century photo by Charles D. Kirkland asks. Next to it, an Untitled Film Still by Cindy Sherman and a 1909 image of Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” offer a 1990s critical-theory-induced refrain: something about identity being performed rather than inherited.
There’s plenty to see here, but much is missing. “Into the Sunset” virtually ignores recent developments like the software explosion in Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest, exurban fundamentalism, population growth in Las Vegas and other Western cities, today’s Mormons, the ski industry’s effect on the Rockies (Carleton Watkins’s 1860s view of snow-topped mountains in Yosemite could use an updated companion), or photography’s dark side, the Hollywood paparazzi.
Even within the narrower confines of “art” photography, there are egregious omissions. Catherine Opie’s portraits of drag kings, surfers, houses in Bel Air, desolate Los Angeles freeways, or her L.A. neighborhood would qualify her for about 90 percent of the groupings here. Earthworks and Land Art’s colonization of the Western desert are mentioned in the catalog, but not present in the galleries. The Center for Land Use Interpretation is one of the best critical photo projects out there—documentation of garbage wastelands in Los Angeles and the Trans-Alaska pipeline are among their recent efforts—but nowhere to be seen here.
In many ways, it’s a problem of curatorial style triumphing over substance. The thematic, free-associating installation can be great. But decontextualization is a tricky gambit that leaves many photos here stranded on a wall with supposedly “like” images.
Instead of old curatorial strategies being challenged, it would be nice to see a greater breakdown of categories within photography itself. After all, one of the most captivating photographs in the show is Richard Prince’s Untitled (Cowboy) (2003), from a series started in the early 1980s of images appropriated from Marlboro advertisements. As Arthur Danto wrote about Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes,” Pop Art owes a great, mostly unacknowledged debt to postwar commercial art and its bright, appealing aesthetics. Photography is the same: Prince’s photograph is, above all, seductive. That’s why it’s hung at the entrance; the first image you see, greeting you head-on. A newer frontier in photo-curating might be to give similar billing to photographs—particularly contemporary ones—originating in a variety of contexts. It might at least provide a broader, more panoramic view of the West.