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Exhibit | Myth and Majesty: Photographs Picturing the American Southwest

An eye-opening look at the way in which photography was used to shape the practices of Manifest Destiny to annex the American West.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Adam Clark Vroman, “Snake Priest”, Walpi, 1901.

The term “Manifest Destiny” was coined in 1845 to describe American imperialism, and was immediately used to justify a war with Mexico. Yet, despite it’s use, there was never a set of principles defining what “Manifest Destiny” actually meant; as such it became more an article of faith used to support the righteous belief in continental expansionism. Fueled by the budding belief in American exceptionalism and fueled by a passion for Romantic nationalism, under the practitioners of Manifest Destiny the annexation of the American West had begun.

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At the same time that Manifest Destiny was beginning to take hold, the practice of photography had emerged and this new method to record and transmit information was used to shape the public’s view of the “taming” of the American West. For white America, this was all very exciting, of course. Myths and fantasies of “cowboys and Indians” began to grip the public imagination. However, for Native Americans, Manifest Destiny signaled the beginning of an occupation that continues to this very day.

McKern, Underwood & Underwood, Masked Hopi sitting on rocks, 1905. Collection of the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTSblock, The Keystone-Mast Collection

McKern, Underwood & Underwood, “Masked Hopi sitting on rocks”, 1905.

Myth and Majesty: Photographs Picturing the American Southwest, now on view at the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTSblock, Riverside, CA, through May 21, 2016, presents a selection of 93 prints from 1870s-1930s depicting life among the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo peoples. Selected from the museum’s permanent collection, the photographs were made by Adam Clark Vroman, Edward Sheriff Curtis, John Karl Hillers, and William Henry Jackson, among others. Each photographer worked with his own agenda representative of the larger white American agenda at work.

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As Jason Weems, Associate Professor of the History of Art at UCR, writes, “For Native Americans, who found little purchase in Manifest Destiny, the structuring force of photography proved powerful and perilous. When aimed at indigenous subjects, the camera became an instrument of investigation, categorization, and finally abstraction…. Then, because most viewers possessed neither the option nor inclination to experience these different cultures in their full circumstances, the photographs themselves (like Wild West shows or the World’s Fair exhibitions) became the de facto context for understanding Indian life.”

Underwood & Underwood, Pictographs and undeciphered writing of antiquity, near Adamana, Arizona, n.d. Collection of the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTSblock, The Keystone-Mast Collection

Underwood & Underwood, Pictographs and undeciphered writing of antiquity, near Adamana, Arizona, n.d.

In this way, the camera became a tool for documenting the last days of freedom and the earliest days of government occupation. At the same time, photography was used as a document that helped the powers-that-be develop processes of expansion, transformation, and displacement that fundamentally shaped the American West. As Weems explains, “Photographs fixed distant and mysterious continental spaces into concrete images that rendered the land known and controlled.”

Myth and Majesty: Photographs Picturing the American Southwest offers an incredible look at not only who and what was photographed on these expeditions, but how these photographs were used as vehicles to exploit the idea of continental expansion across the country.

Images courtesy of the California Museum of Photography at UCR ARTSblock.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.