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Harsh reality of West captured in BYU exhibit

Landscape photographers examine West across two centuries

PROVO, Utah — The underlying economic, social and aesthetic issues surrounding the developing American West over the past 150 years are examined in a new photography exhibit at BYU's Museum of Art.

Craig Law's 1989 photo "Bridge Over the Snake River, near Hansen, Idaho" illustrates the impact of man-made structures on the American West.
Craig Law's 1989 photo "Bridge Over the Snake River, near Hansen, Idaho" illustrates the impact of man-made structures on the American West. Photo: Photo courtesy of BYU Museum of Art

The exhibit — titled Photography and Perception: Exploring the Western Landscape — combines a number of photographs from the 19th century with 20th century images, capturing the vision and often harsh reality of America's western landscape.

The exhibition opened Dec. 6 and includes the works of Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis, William Henry Jackson, Mark Klett, Craig Law and many more.

American landscape photography developed simultaneously with the exploration and settlement of the western United States after the Civil War. Photography played a major role in the American perception of the West as 19th century photographers depicted an unoccupied landscape rich with wonder and potential. Mountains, waterfalls, deep river canyons and unusual geologic formations framed through the cameras of Carleton Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson caught the imagination of the American public viewing such images through stereographs, cabinet cards and print collections.

Americans regarded the wilderness landscape as their cultural heritage — a resource equal or perhaps even superior to European art and culture. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny justified the occupation of the continent and the development of the land and its resources, according to the museum's staff.

Landscape photos such as Timothy H. O'Sullivan's 1873 image of ancient ruins in canyon De Chelly gave 19th century viewers a romantic glimpse of the Western frontier.
Landscape photos such as Timothy H. O'Sullivan's 1873 image of ancient ruins in canyon De Chelly gave 19th century viewers a romantic glimpse of the Western frontier. Photo: Photo courtesy of BYU Museum of Art

Western landscape is no longer unfamiliar territory. Much of the land now supports urban populations and has been altered. In the late 1960s the "New Topographic" photography movement began examining man's impact on the land. Along with landscapes, Photography and Perception includes manmade images such as housing developments, roads, electric plants and other structures.

"Standing before the landscape with a camera is like looking into a mirror," landscape photographer Mark Kelt said. "The landscape reflects our own image, but so much of what we know and what we think we know about the land has come through someone's lens."

The exhibit runs through May 4, 2002, and will work in conjunction with a photo lecture series. The exhibit and lectures are free to the public. The museum is located on the BYU campus on North Campus Drive.

Call (801) 422-1140 for tour information.

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