By Rachel McLean Sailor. University of New Mexico Press, March 2014. 240 p. ill. ISBN 9780826354228 (cl.), $45.00.
Reviewed July 2014
While certainly not an overlooked genre, the body of scholarly works on frontier photography is far from complete. There are numerous works on the subject, but it is not nearly as glutted as the research on many other sub-genres of photographic history. In the effort to fill in some of the gaps, art history professor Rachel McLean Sailor has come forth with Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographs in the Nineteenth-Century American West.
The hardbound book is a collection of six case studies placed in the larger contexts of both frontier photography and American history. Each chapter focuses on a particular photographer or team of photographers, and is illustrated appropriately with both their own images and those of relevant artists. Despite the seemingly narrow subject matter, a wide range is covered within the confines of the nineteenth-century landscape, which is also reflected in the extensive bibliography. The variety of photographers include the almost wholly unknown and the renowned, and the formats run from the daguerreotype to gelatin-silver prints, and the time period spans nearly 100 years - from the 1840s into the twentieth century. In addition to placing each artist's work in the broader history, the author includes pertinent biographical information, influences, and analyses of their personal relationship to the landscape.
While the focus is on the instrumental importance of the landscape itself, the resulting images, and the cultural implications of each, McLean Sailor adds a number of new perspectives to the analysis of landscape photography. The concept of landscape as that which is simultaneously created and creates runs throughout the book and the reader is reminded often of the European point-of-view that affected Westward Expansion itself, romantic conceptions tied to it, and how photographs both derived meaning from and imparted it upon the movement.
Because it is so specific and delves into socio-cultural analysis, the content may come off as obscure to those not somewhat versed in either the history of photography or of the United States. However, Meaningful Places will certainly prove valuable to those researching American photography, culture, or history, particularly that of the West. The easy-to-read text and references to Western history and well-known photographers such as Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins also make the title appealing as a recreational read for art or American history buffs.
© 2014 ARLIS/NA