The harsh light, sweeping panoramas, and sculpted pueblos of the American Southwest make it an ideal subject for photographers. For that reason, Americans have spent the last half century surrounded by images of red canyons, silhouetted cacti, highways stretching toward distant horizons, and cowboys astride tired steeds. These postcard icons have become part of a common visual shorthand used to discuss the idea of frontier, but in the early twentieth century such photographs were evidence of the exotic. The shooters who would define the region in the popular imagination had yet to arrive.
They came for many reasons. Photographers arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in search of unspoilt wilderness, native tribes, clean light, and respite from increasingly crowded and dirty cities. But whatever the reasons were for their coming, the reason they all returned was the same: scale. Monument Valley, the Sonoran Desert, and even the ancient towns around Taos provided photographers with a chance to capture subjects in the context of deep time. For the initial group of artistically minded photographers who journeyed from New York to meet Georgia O'Keeffe, the wife of their famed gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, the place served as a laboratory for experimentation. For the artists that followed, it came to embody the size and possibility of America, serving as a stage for more human dramas.
The Southwest's significance in shaping photography as an artform is matched only by photography's significance in defining the region's identity. Here are the photographers who came to the desert with their cameras and left with a legacy.
Before World War II, Berlyn Brixner was working as a photographer for the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and living in Albuquerque. His work – mostly technical and in service of scientific projects – got him a military job at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, just as the Manhattan Project got underway. Brixner was hired to work on high-speed photography technologies and assigned to shoot the Trinity test, the first use of an atomic bomb.
Shooting a nuclear explosion was no easy matter. After being told by the station’s scientists that the bomb would be roughly ten times as bright as the sun, Brixner went out, shot film of the sun with a slit camera – the type used at races for photo finishes – and did some basic math. By the time the bomb detonated, he had cameras running all around the site and one in his hands. "I was just sitting there with the camera running," he told a WWII historian years later. "Everything was operated from the central control station. Turned on. So I didn't have to do anything at the time but just sit there."
The film strip that captured the fiery mushroom bloom over the Oscura Mountains is not generally considered to be artistically important, but it contains some of the most significant celluloid images of the twentieth century. Brixner's images of Trinity showed the astonishing horror of America's ultimate weapon, allowing civilians to see what their government had been experimenting on the backyard during the war. Excited by his work engineering new types of cameras, Brixner would stay on at Los Alamos until his retirement.
Trinity Test Still