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.
One of the first prominent photographers ever to embrace color film, Eliot Porter used his art to advocate for the conservation of endangered western landscapes. Porter, an Illinois native fully under the influence of Stieglitz in the late 1930s, ultimately followed him and Georgia O'Keeffe to New Mexico, where their home served as a base camp for his journeys into the arid wilderness. By the Sixties, Porter was working with the Sierra Club and publishing books devoted to the un-owned and un-trammeled. In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World became one of the first important volume of color landscape photographs.
"Photography is a strong tool, a propaganda device, and a weapon for the defense of the environment," Porter wrote in the introduction to In Wildness. Porter’s most important work on behalf of the environment came in his next volume, The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado, which was published to acclaim in 1963. The book thoroughly documented the rock formations surrounding the Colorado River, which had just been dammed up. The images were warm and welcoming in a way Ansel Adams's sweeping landscapes and O'Keeffe's formalist paintings had never been. Porter's photographs of Glen Canyon, which showed a beautiful place just before it became a giant earthworks project, served as publicity materials for the movement to pass the Wilderness Act in 1964.
In the late Sixties, Porter became the director of the Sierra Club and he spent decades traveling the world in search of virgin landscapes but always returned to his home in the small town of Tesuque north of Santa Fe, an area he once described as "a place of high adventure and romance."
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