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.
After making his name in the Twenties as a shooter on soft-focus Paramount romances, cinematographer Bert Glennon spent a few years working on B movies (The Half Naked Truth, Blonde Venus, Art in the Raw) before being hired by John Ford for 1935's The Prisoner of Shark Island. That film, which documented the life of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth and was imprisoned on the Dry Tortugas for his trouble, was a critical and financial success. The increasingly famous director and now respected cinematographer decided to work together again, this time on Stagecoach, which was to be shot in Monument Valley.
The film that revitalized the Western and introduced America to John Wayne was Glennon's masterpiece. Rather than using his camera to augment the action, Glennon took long, slow, and deliberate shots. The result was a film in which the drama was dwarfed by the setting. This approach would not only inspire latter-day cinematographers – Sergio Leone shot in similar style – but fundamentally alter the American notion of the West. Rather than being a series of obstacles to be overcome, the West became the sparsely decorated stage on which idea-centric dramas were played out.
Later in Glennon's career, when he shot San Antonio, starring Errol Flynn, he would take a similar approach, but be thwarted somewhat by color, which complicated the simple images he excelled at capturing. Still, frames from that blockbuster could pass for art house photographs. Long sweeping views of prairies give the impression that the Southwest is empty but for the drama taking place in it.
Film Still From Stagecoach