The New Yorker
Before the first postcards arrived back East showing sunlit cactuses and mesas, railroad-company photographers and government surveyors had already begun to document the American West for commercial gain. In Print The Legend, Martha A. Sandweiss writes that as early as the eighteen-sixties daguerreotypes, album plates, and glass lantern slides encouraged railroad barons and real-estate developers to plot their next moves. Desolate flatlands were paired with optimistic text, depicting "a visual story that affirmed and expanded the central fictions of nineteenth-century western history."
The rodeo circuit provides another framework for Western legend; barrel-racing cowgirls spent their time away from the arena "polishing white boots and powdering white hats," according to Rodeo Queens and The American Dream. Author Joan Burbick interviews female rodeo stars, starting with the foremothers of the nineteen-thirties. "Buckle bunnies," as they were called, "were on a strict work schedule. Western heritage was serious business."
Farther west lay California, and particularly Southern California, with its stark contrasts of reality and fakery, history and amnesia. "Accept no man's statement that he knows this Country of Lost Borders well," Mary Austin warned in 1909, but more than seventy contributors take a shot in Writing Los Angeles. One of them, Helen Hunt Jackson, described L.A. in 1883 as a city of "century-long summers" -- an earlier version of Truman Capote's assessment: "Snow is on the mountains, yet flowers color the land, a summer sun juxtaposes December's winter sea." In other words, wish you were here.
More a scholarly tome than the usual Ansel Adams$like coffee-table fixture, this study sets its dual focus on a new pictorial medium and the new distinctively American region of the 19th century. As the title suggests, it is no more about how the West really was than it is a simple compendium of lovely images. Sandweiss, a professor of history and American Studies at Amherst College, attempts a difficult balance of art and history, where photographs and social studies complement each other rather than compete for intellectual space. Time is on Sandweiss' s side: as she shows, America' s frontier narrative and the new art form did more or less rise up together. The book stakes its labors on the assumption that, even if the confluence is sheer chance, the influence can' t help running both ways: photos helped make the West, and the art form was in turn shaped by the new needs of a newly shaped nation. Sandweiss is richly informative and thoughtful in recounting and reconsidering the times, no surprise for an editor of the excellent Oxford History of the American West. Her account of the cultural impact of the Spanish-American War is probing; the Native American history here is inclusive, surprising and subtle. It would be quite difficult to handle the photography with equal Elan, especially given the author' s commitment to the significance of public photographs in large part, fairly repetitive portraiture and Sandweiss' s readings of pictures are rarely insightful, if sometimes usefully direct. As a result, the careful and thoughtful book will appeal less to students of photography than to those interested in the place and time, and how our image of it came together. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This passionate and compassionate book is closer to historiography (how historians do their work) than to history. Sandweiss (American studies & history, Amherst Coll.; coeditor, The Oxford History of the American West) describes how photography and the American West grew up simultaneously, beginning in the early 1800s. She explores imagery of the Mexican-American War, western expansion, photographic surveys, images of the American Indian, and the role photography played in promoting an idealized, mythic West. The work's strength lies in the author's sensitive discussions about photography's powerful ability to describe but limited ability to explain. In the end, Sandweiss makes a valuable contribution toward better understanding the uses of photography by historians (who often limit its role to illustration) and members of the general public (who are often unaware of preconceptions that influence how they view an image). She shows photographs to be problematic evidence but skillfully argues on behalf of their playing a more central role in historical research. This is one historian's argument for a more nuanced understanding of these fascinating, complicated documents.-Michael Dashkin, PricewaterhouseCoopers, New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.