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.
Dorothea Lange found fame on fallow ground. During the Great Depression, she abandoned her portrait studio in Berkeley, California and drove around the West in a Ford Model C taking pictures of migrant workers for the Farm Security Administration. Her images documented more than economic hardship, focusing on individuals. Taken as a whole, her work from the period is a profound and lasting piece of journalism, but her images privileged artistry – "Migrant Mother," her most famous work, is a delicate portrait – over documentation.
The Dust Bowl had forced farmers and laborers all over the southern Midwest and the South to search farther afield for work. In Arizona and West Texas workers picked cotton and continued on their way west, down U.S. 80 through New Mexico. Lange shot the people as they traveled and the places they ultimately ended up. Desperation is a pervasive theme, but Lange wasn't merely focused on the crisis before her. "No country has ever closely scrutinized itself visually," she told a historian from the Smithsonian near the end of her life.
Her images of the Southwest are unconcerned with the beauty of the place, depicting it as a less of a place and more of a blank space between places. For Lange, who was always hasty to criticize photographers who captured the "obviously picturesque," New Mexico, West Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California were incubators of a uniquely American form of striving.
Farm Security Administration Casa Grande project, Arizona
Credit: Library of Congress; The Crowley Company