The Wide, Wide West (Then and Now)

Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

Photography was introduced about the time Americans were discovering the West, and a medium had found its message. The new technology, invented independently by Frenchman Louis Daguerre and Englishman William Talbot in 1839, became a perfect vehicle for capturing expanses of the new territories opened up through purchase and treaty, stretching the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and brought the new vistas back East to the curious stay-at-homes.

Of course, other chroniclers wielded pencils and paintbrushes, creating sketches and paintings that celebrated the Western vistas--endless plains, noble peaks, newly sprouted cities such as San Francisco. Their romanticized manner echoed the call of Manifest Destiny. Photography would do the same and become even more popular, especially because it could be readily duplicated.

To capture the vast horizons, early photographers pieced frames together to produce a panorama (from Greek, meaning "all-seeing"). Later, large-format cameras were invented.

"The Great Wide Open: Panoramic Photographs of the American West," recently opened at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, gives us a chance to relive that heady moment in American history--as well as see the contemporary West captured by photographers working in this format now. Of course, today's photographers tend to have "a less innocent eye," says independent co-curator Claudia Bohn-Spector.

About 60 images made by 35 photographers are included in the show. Bohn-Spector and co-curator Jennifer Watts, the Huntington's curator of photographs, have defined a panoramic photograph as one with at least a 1:2 ratio and a 150-degree view.

Originally, the exhibition was to cull mainly from the Huntington's extensive collection. "As we started looking at the work, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to include the best we could find," Watts says. So they expanded their search, looking through the 5,000 panoramas in the Library of Congress, visiting historical societies and private collections, and, of course, photographers. Thus, about three-fourths of the works are borrowed, with the remainder from the Huntington. They saw so many wonderful works, says Bohn-Spector, "we could easily have had a show three times this size."

Finally, they were limited by the capacity of the site, the Boone Gallery, and the fact that they wanted to display their ideas about space in a spacious way.

To that end, some of the photographs will be suspended in midair--held in place by wires above and below. Two especially long sets of photographs will be hung on a custom-built curved panel so that the viewer can take them in while standing in one place. These are Eadweard Muybridge's 13-panel panorama of San Francisco from 1878, below which will hang Mark Klett's "re-photography" of the city from the same location in 1990.

Instead of presenting the material in a straightforward chronology, Watts and Bohn-Spector came up with five themes, or ways of looking at space: range, pathway, grid, site and tribe.

"We wanted to come up with a narrative that allows people to let their imagination loose," Bohn-Spector says. "Rather than saying, 'Here's a neat story for you,' we wanted to jumble it up a little bit, take these spatial metaphors and make connections between format and region."

The early panoramas were often celebratory vistas--included is a rare daguerreotype panorama from 1853, "View of San Francisco," which is made up of six panels in its original gilded frame.

Around 1900, reasonably priced panoramic cameras became available, and they were commonly used to record civic or social events and land development projects. Thus, the lines of bathing beauties (a 1926 "Miss Los Angeles" contest at Ocean Park, for example), as well as bread lines (a 1924 bread line sponsored by an employment agency in Alamo City, Texas ).

In the 1960s and 1970s fine-art photographers began to pick up the format, and there has been a core dedicated to it ever since, including Laurie Brown, Lois Conner, Robert Dawson, Gus Foster, Karen Halverson, Skeet McAuley and Klett, who are all in the show. "It's important to keep in mind the audience for a historic panorama," Bohn-Spector says. "They were mostly commercial vehicles, versus fine arts vehicles, so we look at them slightly differently. But even for contemporary photographers, the ideas of the endless expanse are still very much present."

For Halverson, that connection was direct. In 1991 she moved from New York to Los Angeles, from the East to the West.

"I'd been doing photography in the West since the 1980s and used 4-by-5 and 6-by-9 cameras before," she says. "When I moved here, one of the first things that struck me was Mulholland Drive, which I knew about from seeing David Hockney's painting at the Met. Mulholland Drive is really interesting, it runs across the city and bisects it, and I wanted to photograph it and thought right away--panoramic camera."

First she rented one, then she bought one. For the next two years, she photographed Mulholland Drive from the Pacific coast to its inland end.

"I fell in love with the format," Halverson says. "First of all, any change in format stirs you up and makes you see creatively in a different way. The first compositional element is frame, so immediately you compose differently."

Today she uses a Fuji 617 camera, which takes 120-millimeter film and can produce a negative 21/4 inches high and 63/4 inches wide. "The format is created by the camera," she explains. "What makes it feel panoramic is the aspect ratio--in this case, 1 to 3."

Halverson prefers color and has three works in the show. "Hoover Dam" is part of her Colorado River series, undertaken in 1994-95. Here, she was inspired by the beauty and magnitude of the dam. "It's one of the most wonderful pieces of Art Deco architecture," she says. "It was the first major American dam to be built, an extraordinary accomplishment of engineering, built in 1935."

On the other hand, "Thermapolis, Wyoming" holds more irony. Looking down a deserted road bounded by a wooden fence stretching into the horizon, a sign on the left fence stands out: Buffalo are dangerous. "There's not a buffalo in sight--why not a statement rather than a warning?" Halverson chuckles. "Like, 'Don't Feed the Buffalo' or something. The sign just doesn't make any sense at all, the scene is so serene looking."

Likewise, she is intrigued by the incongruence in "Furnace Creek, Death Valley, California," where more than 100 empty lawn chairs have been set up in the parched desert, facing one direction, apparently in anticipation of a music performance later in the day.

Robert Dawson found himself naturally drawn to the format because of his environmental concerns. "My original inspiration is that I love being outdoors," says Dawson, speaking by telephone from San Francisco. "I became aware of Ansel Adams--I even went to the same place in Yosemite, to try to shoot his photographs."

Shortly after he left graduate school in 1979, he bought a Brooks Veriwide medium format camera, which provided a 100-degree view. He began a series of photographs of Mono Lake, which was later used in a project to help preserve it.

"That camera fit very well into the expansive Western landscape that is Mono Lake," he says. "It caught my imagination how photography can be used as a tool for social and environmental awareness."

Like early photographers, Dawson places together several images to achieve the panoramic effect, and sometimes, he says, these visual narratives include the element of time. The two Dawson photographs in the exhibition were published last year in "A Doubtful River" (University of Nevada Press).

For that project, he and photographer Peter Goin followed the Truckee River from where it begins in Lake Tahoe to where it splits and is used by ranchers and the Paiute Indians in Nevada. Diversions of the water have created problems for both groups.

Dawson prefers black-and-white for the depth of tones. In "Tire Tracks on Winnemucca Dry Lake," a Nevada triptych, he captures an expanse of parched desert, hills rising in the distant background. Looking eerily like an earthwork, circles of car tracks have gouged the terrain. In the lower part of the right panel, the shadow of the photographer and his camera is evident.

Looking at Dawson's work as it is being prepared for the show, Watts points out the details that can be seen upon closer observation--a section of rope, a piece of junk metal, the detritus of civilization. People tend to be naturally drawn to panoramas, says the curator, who has often given lectures and tours through the Huntington's photograph collection.

"It's the idea of a scroll," Watts says, "so it's sort of a narrative where you're starting at one end and go to the other, or you focus in on one particular spot and move outwards."

The fact that they tend to be large, capturing more information, is part of the attraction. "When you see them in the original, you're drawn in by the level of detail, there's so much going on in one of these. You just have to take time to pour over them, in a way that one does with the best kinds of photographs."

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"THE GREAT WIDE OPEN," Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Dates: Through Sept. 9. Tuesdays-Fridays, 12-4:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Prices: $8.50, adults; $8, seniors; $6, students; free for children younger than 12. Phone: (626) 405-2100.

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