An intelligent, beautiful, confounding, and wide-ranging book from MoMA.
The basic premise here is that "the development of photography coincided with the exploration and settlement of the American West, and since the opening of the frontier, the medium has shaped perceptions of the West's physical and social landscape."
Organized into two long chapters: "Land" and "People," the sequencing of these images by Eva Respini is brilliant. This image mirrors that one. These images amplify and expand those images. This image calls into question the entire way of seeing the stuff in that image. The way these photographs progress through the book borders on being a narrative. The highest compliment I can pay is that the order of the images in play here is reminiscent of Walker Evans' first book with MoMA (Walker Evans: American Photographs) back in 1938.
As you might expect, you get everything from anonymous early portraits through heavy-hitters like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and William Henry Jackson to a large number of images from late twentieth century photographers. Some of my personal favorites contribute: Friedlander, Cindy Sherman, Garry Winogrand, Richard Misrach, Bill Owens. And there are brilliant photographs by a bunch of people who are new to me.
Square hardback: cloth over board with blind-stamped and dark grey details, in dustjacket, sewn binding, on nice stock. 168 pp. 2.75 pounds. With index, bibliography, list of plates, and a terrific illustrated essay by Respini.
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I was rather sceptical about the book's premise: photos of the west shaped how the land was perceived over the decades but Eva Respini's excellent essay pulled all the photos into place to prove the point.
After the book's twenty page illustrated essay by Respini there are two image sections: Land with ninety-eight photos and People with sixty-eight. Of the two I thought Land was the strongest because of the geographic uniqueness of so many of the photos. The work of William Henry Jackson, Carlton Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan and Edward Sheriff Curtis in the 1800s and early 1900s must have amazed the folks back East. Other photos bring the concept up to date including some old favorites: Ansel Adams still stunning 'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941); Julius Shulman's Case Study House #22 (1960); Stephen Shore's Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles (1975). The overall theme running through the Land section is open space and emptiness.
I thought the People section had less impact than the Land. Clearly photos of loggers, native American, cowboys and early pioneers place them in the West but some of the more contemporary work lacks the certainty of place. Still great photos though including Lange's Migrant Mother (1936) and Robert Frank's clever Movie premiere - Hollywood (1956) where he has the fans in focus and the starlet out of focus.
The book was published in conjunction with two exhibitions of the photos, in 2009 at MoMA and 2010 at the Seattle Art Museum. Beautifully printed with a 300 screen on a matt art and a useful bibliography in the back pages of general books on the theme and individual titles about the seventy-two photographers. A worthwhile addition to anyone's American photo book collection.
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