Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West

Perpetual Mirage: Photographic Narratives of the Desert West

by May Castleberry
     
 

The catalogue for an unprecedented exhibition opening in June 1996 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Perpetual Mirage is the first fully illustrated history of the desert West and the first full-scale study of one of the most distinctive American publishing traditions - the photographic book. Since the mid-19th century, photographs of the American Southwest - its…  See more details below

Overview

The catalogue for an unprecedented exhibition opening in June 1996 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Perpetual Mirage is the first fully illustrated history of the desert West and the first full-scale study of one of the most distinctive American publishing traditions - the photographic book. Since the mid-19th century, photographs of the American Southwest - its towering mountains, majestic canyons, and unusual wildlife - have been presented to the public primarily in books. These photographic books enabled the images to speak directly to the viewer. In the hands of the early photographic pioneers, the photograph functioned as a tool of scientific exploration, promoted commercial (and political) development of the West, and educated and thrilled people who would never visit the exotic and remote sites captured by the camera. In later years, the masterful photographs of artists such as Ansel Adams contributed to the definition of photography as an independent artistic medium. Even more important, these landscape photographers helped raise public consciousness about the region's fragility and its essential role in a vital, interlocking ecosystem. The photographic legacy of the American Southwest includes the magnificent survey albums of the mid-19th century, through which most Americans first saw the region's exotic plants, ancient cliff dwellings, and natural wonders; turn-of-the-century ethnographic reports, most notably, The North American Indian project of Edward S. Curtis; illustrated travel guides such as those by Edward Weston; books by Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, which marshaled the environmental movement; and the photo-text documents of Dorothea Lange.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
This catalog to an exhibition of photographs of the desert areas of the American West held at the Whitney Museum this past summer should satisfy our continuing fascination with the region while at the same time analyzing the evolution of its unique meanings. Castleberry, the Whitney's librarian and curator of special collections, has written a well-researched and perceptive introduction that examines photographic books as unique historical tools that "make excellent barometers for gauging the interests-or fantasies-of the historical consumer." The lead essay, by Martha Sandweiss (American studies, Amherst Coll.), provides an overview of the evolution of the photographic book as a narrative medium from the latter part of the 19th century to the present. The 20 short essays that follow, written by a group of notable historians, curators, and novelists, delve more deeply into specific titles and projects in the genre. Highlights include Robert Coles's interpretation of Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor's An American Exodus (1939) as a "milestone" in social documentary, and Robert Sobieszek's insightful comments on the bulldozed landscapes of Lewis Baltz's Nevada (1978). Castleberry has chosen an excellent approach and format for exploring the mythic nature of the arid West. An impeccably produced work that would make a fine addition to most collections.-Kathy J. Anderson, Indiana Univ., Bloomington

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780874271003
Publisher:
Whitney Museum of American Art
Publication date:
06/01/1996
Pages:
240

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