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.
A trained ethnographer, Edward Curtis did his most famous work on a deadline. He received a massive $75,000 (roughly equivalent to $2,000,000 today) grant from J.P. Morgan to continue his work capturing images of Native American tribes in 1906 before they disappeared. Curtis, who grew up in Wisconsin before relocating to the Pacific Northwest, knew that what he failed to photograph might simply disappear. "The information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time," Curtis wrote in 1907.
Though Curtis traveled extensively while working on the 20-volume North American Indians, his work in the Southwest was notable. The simple reason the images he captured in Arizona and New Mexico stood out was that several of the tribes he was working with – the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni – were not nomadic. He visited on several occasions, ingratiating himself and earning enough respect to be allowed to participate in ceremonies and tribal events. He would ultimately document 30 tribes in the Southwest alone.
After working with North American Indians for 26 years, Curtis suffered a mental breakdown and moved to Denver. He gave up photography after that, and despite kind words from President Teddy Roosevelt (who described his work as "a service not only to our own people, but to the world of scholarship everywhere") Curtis lapsed into obscurity. It wasn't until the resurgence of interest in indigenous cultures hit in the Seventies that his work received the critical attention it deserved.
Credit: Edward S. Curtis
Evening in Hopi Land