MU­SE­UMS: Be­fore the West, the wild, wild East.

A Na­tional Gallery of Art ex­hi­bi­tion show­cases some of the ear­li­est pho­to­graphs taken in the United States

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PHILIP KENNICOTT philip.kennicott@wash­post.com

In 1842, while vis­it­ing the United States, Charles Dick­ens took a train north­west from Bos­ton to the in­dus­trial town of Lowell, Mass. He wasn’t im­pressed by the scenery: “Mile after mile of stunted trees: Some hewn down by the axe, some blown down by the wind, some half fallen and rest­ing on their neigh­bors, many mere logs half hid­den in the swamp.”

Ev­ery­where he looked, the English au­thor saw signs of “de­cay, de­com­po­si­tion and ne­glect.” This is not the New Eng­land in­scribed in pop­u­lar mem­ory, from the writ­ings of the Amer­i­can Tran­scen­den­tal­ists to the paint­ings of Grandma Moses or Nor­man Rock­well.

But one does see many images rem­i­nis­cent of Dick­ens’s de­scrip­tion in “East of the Mis­sis­sippi: Nine­teenth-Cen­tury Amer­i­can Land­scape Pho­tog­ra­phy,” a rev­e­la­tory and fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of early pho­tog­ra­phy at the Na­tional Gallery of Art that opens Sun­day. The show has gath­ered 175 pho­to­graphs, from early da­guerreo­types to mass-mar­ket stere­o­scope cards, in­clud­ing some of the ear­li­est pho­to­graphic images ever made of the United States.

Vis­i­tors pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in his­tory will find here a record of this coun­try’s early in­fra­struc­ture — its canals, rail­roads and dock­yards — as well as the calami­ties of the Civil War, the de­vel­op­ment of Eastern cityscapes, and a record of Amer­i­can ar­chi­tec­ture both ru­ral and ur­ban. The op­por­tu­nity to stare into the re­flec­tive abyss of a wa­tery da­guerreo­type and move about un­til the light hits at just the right oblique an­gle to re­veal an 1840 im­age of Ni­a­gara Falls, is alone worth the visit.

But the larger drama of this ex­hi­bi­tion is its resti­tu­tion of mem­ory. Amer­i­can land­scape pho­tog­ra­phy is dom­i­nated by pho­tog­ra­phers who worked in the West, cap­tur­ing its large vis­tas and sub­lim­ity, and ad­ver­tis­ing its eco­nomic po­ten­tial. Of­ten, th­ese were pho­tog­ra­phers who worked di­rectly for com­mer­cial or gov­ern­ment sur­vey projects, men such as Carl­ton Watkins (whose work was fea­tured in a 2000 ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery) and Alexan­der Gard­ner (whose post-Civil War pho­tog­ra­phy was a high­light of a re­cent ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Por­trait Gallery).

But pho­tog­ra­phy ar­rived in the East well be­fore in­trepid pho­tog­ra­phers be­gan lug­ging large-for­mat cam­eras across the Plains. In fact, it ar­rived with as­ton­ish­ing alacrity. Within a year of Louis Da­guerre’s an­nounce­ment of his name­sake pho­to­graphic process in 1839, sci­en­tists, tin­ker­ers and ad­ven­tur­ous am­a­teurs were re­pro­duc­ing the tech­nique in the United States. A Bri­tish sci­en­tist named Hugh Lee Pat­tin­son went to Ni­a­gara Falls — al­ready a pop­u­lar sub­ject for pain­ters and print­mak­ers — to pro­duce some of the ear­li­est ex­tant da­guerreo­types made in Amer­ica (and the ear­li­est ex­tant images of the falls). They aren’t in great shape, but it’s a won­der that they still ex­ist and are still leg­i­ble.

From th­ese first ef­forts, the ex­hi­bi­tion charts the rapid tech­ni­cal and aes­thetic evo­lu­tion of the form. A par­al­lel tech­nol­ogy in­vented by the English sci­en­tist Henry Fox Talbot, which used salted pa­per to pro­duce a neg­a­tive and then, through con­tact print­ing, a pos­i­tive im­age, took root quickly, as well, yield­ing thin but crisp pho­to­graphs that didn’t have the dis­tract­ing re­flec­tive back­ground of the da­guerreo­type method. Even though both pro­cesses were cum­ber­some, and pho­tog­ra­phy flour­ished mainly in the ur­ban por­trait stu­dio, land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers made images of places that were phys­i­cally close to the nascent coun­try’s cities, yet still wild, rugged and spir­i­tu­ally re­mote. The Adiron­dacks of Up­state New York, the White Moun­tains of New Hamp­shire and the Hud­son River were pop­u­lar sub­jects.

Per­haps the most in­ter­est­ing room of the ex­hi­bi­tion jux­ta­poses paint­ings and pho­to­graphs made at the same time, in some cases by artists within the same fam­ily. The pho­tog­ra­phers Charles and Ed­ward Bier­stadt were broth­ers to Al­fred Bier­stadt, the great land­scape painter, and pho­tog­ra­pher John Mo­ran was brother to the great Hud­son River School painter Thomas Mo­ran. An 1863 Al­bert Bier­stadt paint­ing, “Moun­tain Brook,” makes a fas­ci­nat­ing con­trast to a sim­i­lar im­age, pho­tographed by his broth­ers at Fran­co­nia Notch, N.H., a few years ear­lier. In both, a stream cuts through a dark patch of for­est, with just a glimpse of sky above. The visual fo­cus is on the rhythm and tu­mult of the for­est floor, rocks, leaves, ferns and trees, in­clud­ing fallen trunks at strange an­gles.

But ex­am­ine the shad­ows in the paint­ing, and one sees an im­age that func­tions more like a map guid­ing how one sees rather than mere tran­scrip­tion of visual data. In Al­bert’s paint­ing, read­ily iden­ti­fi­able ob­jects cast clearly ar­tic­u­lated shad­ows, such as a bro­ken tree stump that leaves a per­fect dark shadow on a sunny rock be­neath it. In the pho­to­graph, the shad­ows are not nearly so de­lin­eated, but ap­pear merely as dark patches. And where Al­bert paints a tiny patch of sky vis­i­ble through the trees, a per­fect shade of sky blue, in the pho­to­graph made by his broth­ers, the sky ap­pears as a blur of white light. The painter, it seems, used a set of visual cues to ori­ent the eye, to let the viewer know where the light is com­ing from, which in turn height­ens the il­lu­sion of verisimil­i­tude. Th­ese are signs that re­fer to visual ideas, rather than a trans­par­ent record of the things them­selves.

Through­out the ex­hi­bi­tion, the di­a­logue be­tween paint­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy is recorded mainly through the de­vel­op­ment of a specif­i­cally pho­to­graphic aes­thetic of pho­tog­ra­phy. But as early as the 1850s, in a mag­nif­i­cent win­ter land­scape by Josiah John­son Hawes, you see pho­to­graphs do­ing things that would spur a small rev­o­lu­tion in how pain­ters de­picted the world. In this case, a del­i­cate screen of snow-cov­ered branches all but ob­scures the im­age of a build­ing in the dis­tance. It would take years of see­ing the world in this pho­to­graph­i­cally de­ter­mined way, and see­ing it in a sim­i­lar form de­picted by Ja­panese print­mak­ers, be­fore this kind of thing would crop up on the painted can­vas.

The emer­gence of a pho­to­graphic aes­thetic wasn’t the same as the adop­tion of painterly tech­niques by pho­tog­ra­phers. An 1880s im­age of a stream with a wa­ter wheel to one side and a pic­turesque bridge in the dis­tance by J.W. Ste­wart sug­gests a pho­tog­ra­pher with an eye to­ward the stan­dard gen­era scene beloved by the more unimag­i­na­tive pain­ters of the age, and it’s lovely in a lim­ited, eas­ily grasped and quickly for­got­ten sort of way. But blue-tinted cyan­otype images by Henry Pe­ter Bosse in the late 1880s and ’90s, show­ing bridges, dams and wa­ter­ways, live in the pho­to­graphic world, full of de­tail and in­ci­dent yet also open to the large, en­gulf­ing vista. Bosse is one of many happy dis­cov­er­ies in this ex­hi­bi­tion, along with Wil­liam Rau, Seneca Ray Stod­dard and James Ry­der.

By the late 19th cen­tury, nos­tal­gia and re­gret creep into the aes­thetic. The Eastern land­scape was look­ing more and more like Dick­ens’s in­fer­nal waste­land of the 1840s. Beloved places were be­ing en­croached on, and de­stroyed. In­fra­struc­ture that had been lov­ingly pho­tographed decades ear­lier no longer read as a light har­ness or gen­tle guid­ing hand on the wilds of na­ture. Train tracks didn’t cut nar­row tracks through the primeval for­est, but blighted wide swaths of the land­scape, and the cleared field was no longer bounded by the in­fi­nite wood. Pho­tog­ra­phers who had pop­u­lar­ized the land­scape for tourists were in­creas­ingly wor­ried about its preser­va­tion. The cap­tion of an 1880 he­lio­type made near Ni­a­gara Falls is self-ex­plana­tory: “Dis­fig­ured Banks: Repul­sive Scenery around Vis­i­tor Ap­proach­ing Goat Is­land Bridge for First View of Rapids, from ‘Spe­cial Re­port of New York State Sur­vey on the Preser­va­tion of the Scenery of Ni­a­gara Falls.’ ”

Amer­i­cans who have lived in both the East and West tend to draw sharp dis­tinc­tions be­tween the land­scapes of each. The East is framed and con­tained, and of­fers dis­crete charms. But it takes work to see them, to look past the per­va­sive de­spo­li­a­tion and rec­on­cile the rough hand of man with the fragility of old forests and moun­tains. The West is more im­me­di­ate and can still over­awe the spec­ta­tor with sub­stan­tial rem­nants of its old an­ni­hi­lat­ing grandeur. This ex­hi­bi­tion scram­bles th­ese old ex­pec­ta­tions and prej­u­dices and re­calls the mem­ory of wild­ness in the East.

Now, as the coun­try flirts with un­do­ing its en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions, un­leash­ing the pure and un­tram­meled preda­tory power of cap­i­tal­ism once again on the land­scape, and in­vest­ing in mas­sive new in­fra­struc­ture projects, the show could not be more timely. The essence of pho­tog­ra­phy, which fixes an im­age in a mat­ter of mo­ments, is to say: Look what we’ve lost. Now it’s time to look again.

NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF ART

NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF ART/THE KINGTON FOUN­DA­TION

TOP: John Mo­ran’s “Broad­head’s Creek, Delaware Wa­ter Gap,” 1863 al­bu­men print. ABOVE: Thomas Mo­ran’s “The Ju­ni­ata, Evening,” 1864 oil on can­vas. John Mo­ran, a pho­tog­ra­pher, was brother to Hud­son River School painter Thomas Mo­ran.

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