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Picturing the West 3

The third section of the forum will let us think about what the West means after the “closing of the Frontier” described by Turner. When we are talking about the nineteenth-century West, these process versus place questions can get a tad tangled up. But once we move beyond 1893, even devoted Turnerians must examine what the term “The West” means if the Frontier period is now closed.

For that reason, and because it argues that the contemporary West has a continuous history even into the twentieth century, it is worthwhile to think about the place of the West in the nation’s history from 1900 on. This begs the question – is the West still a distinct region in the twentieth century? Some of the characteristics of the modern West – the high concentration of federal land holding, the continued and visible presence of native peoples, the continued emphasis on extractive industries broadly defined to include farming, mining, and forestry – are consonant with the popular image of the West. Others – the concentration of Western populations in cities, the cosmopolitan make-up of the populace, the role that heavy industry and industrial strife have played in shaping the region – seem disconsonant. And yet the twentieth-century West, with both its consonant and disconsonant characteristics, remains distinctive within the nation.

The topic is vast, so let’s focus on three issues: the use of “Madonna” imagery to represent both actual and symbolic women; the transformation of the “Western landscape” image; and narratives of continuity.

W.H.D. Koerner, "The Madonna of the Prairie" 1921

W.H.D. Koerner, "The Madonna of the Prairie" 1921

Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California” (1936) – commonly known as “Migrant Mother”

Dorothea Lange, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California” (1936) – commonly known as “Migrant Mother”

Yolanda M. Lopez, "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe" (2002)

Yolanda M. Lopez, "Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe" (2002)

Helen Hardin (Little Standing Spruce/Tsa-Sah-Wee-Eh; Santa Clara Pueblo), "Changing Woman" (1982)

Helen Hardin (Little Standing Spruce/Tsa-Sah-Wee-Eh; Santa Clara Pueblo), "Changing Woman" (1982)

The four images provided – well-known Western illustrator W.H.D. Koerner’s 1921 “Madonna of the Prairie,” Dorothea Lange iconic 1936 FSA photograph known as “Migrant Mother,” Chicana artist Yolanda M. Lopez’s 2002 self-portrait as The Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Santa Clara Pueblo painter Helen Hardin’s 1982 “Changing Woman” – all present evocations of actual women while presenting women as symbols of community and continuity. Presenting an overlander haloed by the arch of her wagon, Koerner argues for the inclusion of female experience even while he presents the “prairie madonna” as a symbol of the coming of “civilization” to the West. Although it was painted in the twentieth century, Koerner’s image draws on the nineteenth-century Frontier mythos, providing a comforting narrative of the seamless integration of the West into an expanding nation. The other three works, while they also invoke Madonna imagery, present a more complicated narrative of both women’s experiences and the region – in part, perhaps, because they are all images produced by women.

Much has been written about Dorothea Lange’s photograph taken for the Farm Security Administration in 1936; it is one of the most well-known American photographs. It is often presented as a part of a national, rather than regional, narrative; but re-imagining it as part of a quintessentially Western story illuminates many of the continuities of nineteenth-century histories in the twentieth century. In this re-imagining, Dust Bowl emigrants parallel the movements of overland pioneers seeking a promised land of prosperity. Like those who came before them, they arrive in a place already populated and decidedly not “free for the taking.” Like nineteenth-century emigrants, they depend on the support of the federal government and on the institutions of an established economy to make their way in their new home. Further, Bill Ganzel’s photograph, taken in 1979, of Florence Thompson with her daughters in California, shows the true theme of Lange’s photograph: survival.

Bill Ganzel, Florence Thompson and Her Daughters, California, 1979

Bill Ganzel, Florence Thompson and Her Daughters, California, 1979

Some of those encountered by these twentieth-century overlanders were the descendants of peoples who had called the region home long before the nineteenth century. Native peoples who had lived in continuous settlements in the Southwest since the eleventh century had their own ways of staking a claim to their homes. Helen Hardin, also known by her Tewa name of Little Standing Spruce or Tsa-Sah-Wee-Eh, was born in Santa Clara Pueblo in 1943, the daughter of well-known Pueblo artist Pablita Velarde and an Anglo father. As a child of mixed heritage, Hardin herself reflected the difficult coalitions and alliances that emerged in the region between Native peoples and new arrivals. Her paintings present her view of contemporary Pueblo life as simultaneously anchored to tradition and looking toward modernity (they are shaped by both traditional images, such as Mimbres symbols and Tewa figures of spiritual belief, and modern Abstract styles of painting). Her paintings have received mixed receptions; during her lifetime she won awards from tribally-affiliated organizations and museums, but was also criticized by Tewa elders for revealing esoteric information in her artwork. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her late thirties, Hardin began a series of paintings of “Changing Woman,” an evocation of Tewa traditions of women as creator-figures but also of her own ability to survive and adapt. Although she died at the age of forty-one, Hardin’s images survive as a testimony to the reality of Native American presence and survival.

Alongside Native peoples, the descendants of Spanish settlers could also trace their presence in the region to a much earlier time. Although they were often represented as “Mexicans” in the twentieth-century West, many Latinos in the West were not immigrants; instead, they had been on the land long before the American border with Mexico moved south after the ending of the Mexican-American War in 1848. These tejanos, nuevo mejicanos, and californios had prior claim to much of the Southwest. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which settled the border at the Rio Grande made pledges to respect the culture, language, and rights of Mexican citizens who now found themselves under the government of the expanded United States. Despite this, from 1848 into the twentieth century, the rights and prior claims of Latinos in the region were regularly violated. Active resistance to these usurpations took the form of labor struggles (such as the organization of farm workers under the UFW) but also the creation of a “Chicano/a” identity that traced its roots to “La Raza Cosmica” (The Cosmic Race), the New World blending of the blood and cultures of America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. One of the chief symbols of this identity is The Virgin of Guadalupe, the 1531 vision of Mary on Tepeyac, a hill associated with an Aztec goddess, by an Indian in the Spanish colony of New Spain. Yolanda M. Lopez has used the image to great effect as a way to represent the lives of Chicanas in the West – as in her 2002 self-portrait in running shoes, but also as a series of portraits of Chicana women as seamstresses, craftswomen, farmworkers, and the like.

Yolanda M. Lopez, Victoria F. Franco: Our Lady of Guadalupe 2002

Yolanda M. Lopez, "Victoria F. Franco: Our Lady of Guadalupe" 2002

Yolanda M. Lopez, Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe 2002

Yolanda M. Lopez, "Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe" 2002

Yolanda M. Lopez, Madre Mestiza 2002

Yolanda M. Lopez, "Madre Mestiza" 2002

Other Chicana artists have also drawn on the Guadalupe image; see, for instance, Alma Lopez’s 1999 “Our Lady,” which when exhibited at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe in 2001 resulted in controversy similar to the response to Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Piss Christ.” (Alma Lopez’s site about the controversy contains images of “Our Lady”; a collection of essays about the controversy will be published in 2010 by the University of Texas Press).

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872 (detail), oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872 (detail), oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mark Klett, Contemplating the view at Muley Point, Utah, 1994

Mark Klett, Contemplating the view at Muley Point, Utah, 1994

Chuck Forsman, Point of View, 2007

Chuck Forsman, Point of View, 2007

Let us start with Thomas Moran’s “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” as the representative of Western landscapes as presented in the nineteenth century. Moran’s most famous image of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone is not the one that I have included here. The more famous version, the one that appeared at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and currently resides in the Smithsonian in Washington DC does not have figures in it. His less-well known version of the painting, the one included here, does. Yet, even though people are present in this version, they are so tiny as not to be noticeable unless one is aware of their presence. One of the striking things about more contemporary representations of Western landscapes is the drive to include the human figure – and not just for scale, as Moran did, but because the Western landscape is also a human landscape. Chuck Forsman, an Idaho-born artist whose style approaches photorealism, paints gorgeous landscapes of Western scenes, but they include people and the marks of people upon the land, an accounting of what Forsman has termed his “lover’s quarrel” with how Westerners have used the land.

Chuck Forsman, Crow Country, 1993

Chuck Forsman, Crow Country, 1993

Chuck Forsman, Ants, 1996

Chuck Forsman, Ants, 1996

Chuck Forsman, Snake Meridian, 1997

Chuck Forsman, Snake Meridian, 1997

His 2007 painting “Point of View” calls to mind a tourist’s snapshot – but significantly, the people depicted in the painting are presented as connected to this place. Their feed caps and working shirts, and their easy intimacy with the cliff mark them as belonging, not as tourists. Mark Klett, a photographer based in Arizona, has made a career of depicting Western landscapes as human landscapes and as part of an historical development. Klett’s photographs are memorable and recognizable for his inclusion of his own body in the landscape space.

Mark Klett, Self-portrait with Saguaro, About My Same Age, Pinacate, Sonora, 10/29/99

Mark Klett, Self-portrait with Saguaro, About My Same Age, Pinacate, Sonora, 10/29/99

His photograph “Contemplating the view at Muley Point, Utah, 1994,” shows him dangling his feet over the edge of a cliff, imposing his presence upon an otherwise uninterrupted vista. With this act, he erases the idea of the Western landscape as empty and forefronts the image-maker as present in the scene.

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, 2007. View from the south rim of the Grand Canyon with Thomas Moran and California Condor number 302 (one of one hundred fifty-five in the wild). Right: Thomas Moran, America’s greatest scenic artist sketching at Bright Angel Cove, Arizona. (Half of stereo view) Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, Riverside.

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, 2007. View from the south rim of the Grand Canyon with Thomas Moran and California Condor number 302 (one of one hundred fifty-five in the wild). Right: Thomas Moran, America’s greatest scenic artist sketching at Bright Angel Cove, Arizona. (Half of stereo view) Keystone-Mast Collection, California Museum of Photography, Riverside.

In part, Klett’s images reflect his involvement in a larger project of re-evaluating the nineteenth century image of the West. Sometimes referred to as the “rephotography” project, this work reflects the collaboration (sometimes formal, sometimes not) of photographers who have revisited sites of famous landscapes (or events and individuals, as in Bill Ganzel’s return to Florence Thompson, above). Klett’s current work encompasses a collaboration with the photographer Byron Wolfe in which contemporary images are combined with historical ones, as in “View from the south rim of the Grand Canyon with Thomas Moran and California Condor number 302 (one of one hundred fifty-five in the wild),” 2007.

Timothy OSullivan, 1869. Untitled (U.S. Geological Survey)

Timothy O'Sullivan, 1869. Untitled (U.S. Geological Survey)

Rick Dingus for the Rephotographic Survey Project, 1978. Edge of Storm Mountain Reservoir, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Rick Dingus for the Rephotographic Survey Project, 1978. Edge of Storm Mountain Reservoir, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe for Third View, 1999. Edge of Storm Mountain Reservoir, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe for Third View, 1999. Edge of Storm Mountain Reservoir, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT

This project builds in a more creative way on the more documentary earlier rephotographies that include several stages of revisiting the site. As in the series of images of Storm Mountain Reservoir, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT, original photographs by surveyors like Timothy O’Sullivan were revisited in the 1970s by participants in the Rephotographic Survey Project, which engaged 120 sites of 1870s government survey photographs. Subsequently, a “third view” of these sites was undertaken in the 1990s. In looking at the images by Timothy O’Sullivan (1869), Rick Dingus (1978), and Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe (1999), the “timelessness” of the Western landscape is debunked; what has marked the change over time is the imposition of government power on the land, in the form of a reservoir in 1978, and a fence in 1999. In that final image, especially, lie a number of evocative Western images: the rustling cheat grass; the barbed wire on the fence, so high that it is clearly not there to keep cattle in or out; and, in the back of the mind, Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In.”

4 Comments

  1. John McClymer
    Posted October 21, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/steinbeck_review/v003/3.2.groneman_img01.html leads to a large version of Thomas Hart Benton’s depiction of Ma Joad for the original edition of THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Jane Darwell, who played Ma Joad in the movie, looked a good deal like Benton’s Ma Joad. http://davidoffutt.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/jane_darwell.jpg. Ma Joad belongs among our iconic figures, especially in terms of the theme of survival. Tom goes off to an uncertain fate, but Ma stays with the rest of the family, the guarantor that they will somehow make it through the Depression. Life will go on.

  2. Mary Niall Mitchell
    Posted October 26, 2009 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Confronted with all of these landscape renderings of the West, I’m particularly interested in those that are not peopled, yet contain the traces, or the stamp, of human settlement or in some cases conquest, like Edge of Storm Mountain Reservoir, Big Cottonwood Canyon, UT. Which in turn makes me think of the 20th and 21st century West as many college students (particularly those living outside of the West) have experienced it: the West as roadside attraction. The first place that comes to mind is the Cadillac Ranch, in Amarillo, TX. An interesting counterpoint to some of the landscapes Caroline posted might be this image of the ranch at sunset:
    http://www.legendsofamerica.com/photos-texas/CadillacRanch-DA-0504–800.jpg

    The jarring nature of the comparison (Moran’s Yellowstone, say, versus this tourist photograph) might encourage students to thinking more historically about how the West has been both envisioned and used over time. (Like paintings of the canyons, there are hundreds of renderings of this (man-made) landscape. See Google images.)

  3. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    The Ma Joad speech at the end of Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath is always an interesting moment for teaching — in part because it was added on by Ford to replace the unfilmable ending of the Steinbeck’s novel, but ended up capturing in significant ways the twin roads of survival (Ma) and resistance (Tom). Visually, as John McClymer reminds us here, it was also an interesting collaboration — a very Western one — among not only Ford and Steinbeck, but also Benton. I mentioned the ways in which Ford’s version visually mimics Benton in the essay connected to this project, especially in the section where Tom makes his way home to the Oklahoma farm. But this crafting of a Benton-esque Madonna in the filmic Ma Joad is another, and resonates wonderfully with the Lange image as well. One of the other elements of interest in that speech may be beyond the confines of the current discussion, and that is the way in which the speech is gendered: women as enduring, outside of history, passively surviving, contrasted with men who live in “jerks,” take up a fight (like Tom), and *make* history — or, in the words of historian Oswald Spengler: “Men make history; women are history.” This issue of timelessness and ahistoricality is actually an important one for the West, as well; other “ahistorical” categories — the land, Indians, other “peoples without histories,” the West as “empty space” awaiting the coming of the fronter — abound within the assumptions of historians of the region.

    Also, with regard to the Cadillac Ranch, I would add as well western Nebraska’s Carhenge (http://www.carhenge.com/) when addressing the prominence of the “road” in images of Western landscapes (see especially this image: http://www.carhenge.com/images/kaler1.jpg). Along those lines, an interesting project would be to ask students to use the image galleries at Troy Paiva’s site “Lost America: Night Photography of the Abandoned West” (http://www.lostamerica.com/index.html),
    and ask them to identify the visual “Westernness” of the images. True, they are taken in the West — but what aside from simply their location makes them “Western”? The process of answering that question unearths many complications about how the twentieth-century West both resides within and strains against our conceptualizations of it (even now) as a nineteenth-century place. It’s a pretty interesting site, in any case — worth checking out.

  4. Catherine Lavender
    Posted October 28, 2009 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Also, I’m wondering if “Caroline” is referring to Clarissa Lynn or to me? There seems to be some confusion!