The Bowers Museum Revisits Manifest Destiny

Manifest Destiny, you magnificent bastard.

Directed by God to go to the ends of the earth—or at least west of the Mississippi—to spread civilization and democracy, white Americans faithfully went to war with Mexico, planted flags on already-claimed lands, devastated indigenous people who got in the way and forcefully imported others to help build their plantations. The repercussions permeate to this day: Confederate flags, continued racism, land rights disputes, hostility to immigrants—all part and parcel of the self-deception that we were Divinely Intended to take whatever we wanted.

The West wouldn't have been the West without Manifest Destiny, and while none of the photographers on exhibition in Bowers Museum's “Adams, Curtis and Weston: Photographers of the American West” embraced that Darwinian philosophy, each was compelled to document the West in his own unique way, in an understated rebuttal, even if it was political with a small “p.”

The work of ethnologist/photographer Edward S. Curtis was the most obvious response to that Imperialist philosophy: His black-and-white photos of the everyday lives of Indian cultures are given a wash of reddish-brown sepia. The images have met with some derision over the years because Curtis posed and often costumed his subjects, relying on the cliché of the noble savage to sell them, but I would argue his intentions were good.

Not only did he go into debt to create his series “The North American Indian”—spending tens of thousands out of his own pocket when grants didn't cover everything needed—but one needs to look at just two photos in this show to see that his heart was where it needed to be: His circa 1905 portrait of Geronimo presents the Apache warrior in profile, the flinty eagle eyes and grim set of his lips revealing a regretted life of loss and betrayal, all carved into the weathered leather of his face. And the focal figure of Pottery Burner, Santa Clara (from 1926) stands with his or her back to the viewer, sexless, wrapped in a blanket, looking out onto a mangy chaparral, as plumes of smoke eddy and blend into a sky full of angry clouds. The solitary figure can be interpreted as someone simply observing the firing of pottery, but it can also represent an entire culture going up in flames and fading into the air.

More famous than Curtis is the king of the black-and-white nature calendar—and likely the main draw here—Ansel Adams. His environmentalist landscape photographs are stunning examples of the art. Shooting with large-format cameras—”The heaviest one I can carry,” Adams used to quip—that allow for precise resolution, he captured a remarkable amount of detail in his pictures. Getting up close—which you can do at the Bowers—allows you to see gradations in the rock faces of mountains, subtle shifts of contrast in snow banks, and note Adams' affinity for light and dark that looks as if it were applied on a canvas by a master painter.

You'd almost think there was something to that Manifest Destiny thing when looking at the mystical, holy stillness of Mount Williamson, The Sierra Nevada, from Manzanar, California, 1945: The camera is at ground level, rocks and boulders filling the frame, above them the peaks of the mountain, light bursting through the dusting of cloud as if a blessing from above. You can see the wind-blown desert eddies in Sand Dune, Sunrise, Death Valley, California: the ever-changing, delicate, tentative ridge, one side white from the approaching sun, the other side a dusky gray. Photographers can be magicians/liars, choosing to leave out important parts of an image in order to divert your focus, but you never get that feeling with Adams. It's as if any object outside his frame doesn't exist, and you can trust the only thing you're supposed to see is exactly what he's showing you.

Hanging next to Adams is his friend and colleague Edward Weston—to my sense, the finest of the three. More fine art photography than journalism, Weston's deeply sensual vision initially feels out of place in this exhibition; his sultry nudes, studied images of old buildings and erotic still lifes of vegetables are miles away from the other two artists' highlights of the West, but every photo is a serene masterpiece, impossible to be any better than it is. The landscape in “E” Town, New Mexico is lopsided, ramshackle buildings, with high-contrast, menacing clouds hovering overhead.

The portrait Elsa catches his model in an outline of broken glass, a literal picture window trapped in a wooden frame. Looking at the close-ups of a shallot, a cabbage leaf and a pepper, the first thing you think of isn't salad, but that these are animate objects, shiny, the bulbous bumps and valleys liquid and fleshy, glowing and alive. Curtis mourns the past, Adams celebrates the precarious present, and animist Weston's every photograph teases us with a teeming life, if we just open our eyes and see it as he does.

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