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.
On June 6, 1940, the Magdalena News, a tiny paper in Socorro County, New Mexico, printed the following notice: "Mr. Lee of Dallas, Texas, is staying in Pietown, taking pictures of most anything he can find. Mr. Lee is a photographer for the United States Department of Agriculture. Most of the farmers are planting beans this week." Like Lange, Lee was working for the Farm Security Administration, but his approach was rather different. He announced himself and got to know the people of Pie Town, a hamlet on the great divide. Like Steinbeck, he captured hard times made easier by friends.
Unlike many other Depression-era photographers, Lee shot in color as often as in black and white. The result of this choice – and expense – is that his images of the period seem strikingly contemporary and all the more disconcerting for it. The Pie Town images, eventually collected in 2004's "Bound for Glory: America in Color 1939-43," are more timeless for being so modern. They are pictures of a New Mexico that still exists down certain dusty roads.
Credit: Library of Congress
Mrs. Jim Norris with homegrown cabbage, one of the many vegetables which the homesteaders grow in abundance