Photography was introduced about the time Americans were discovering the West, and a medium had found its message. The new technology, invented independently by Frenchman Louis Daguerre and Englishman William Talbot in 1839, became a perfect vehicle for capturing expanses of the new territories opened up through purchase and treaty, stretching the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and brought the new vistas back East to the curious stay-at-homes.
Of course, other chroniclers wielded pencils and paintbrushes, creating sketches and paintings that celebrated the Western vistas--endless plains, noble peaks, newly sprouted cities such as San Francisco. Their romanticized manner echoed the call of Manifest Destiny. Photography would do the same and become even more popular, especially because it could be readily duplicated.
To capture the vast horizons, early photographers pieced frames together to produce a panorama (from Greek, meaning "all-seeing"). Later, large-format cameras were invented.
"The Great Wide Open: Panoramic Photographs of the American West," recently opened at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, gives us a chance to relive that heady moment in American history--as well as see the contemporary West captured by photographers working in this format now. Of course, today's photographers tend to have "a less innocent eye," says independent co-curator Claudia Bohn-Spector.
About 60 images made by 35 photographers are included in the show. Bohn-Spector and co-curator Jennifer Watts, the Huntington's curator of photographs, have defined a panoramic photograph as one with at least a 1:2 ratio and a 150-degree view.
Originally, the exhibition was to cull mainly from the Huntington's extensive collection. "As we started looking at the work, we came to the conclusion that we wanted to include the best we could find," Watts says. So they expanded their search, looking through the 5,000 panoramas in the Library of Congress, visiting historical societies and private collections, and, of course, photographers. Thus, about three-fourths of the works are borrowed, with the remainder from the Huntington. They saw so many wonderful works, says Bohn-Spector, "we could easily have had a show three times this size."
Finally, they were limited by the capacity of the site, the Boone Gallery, and the fact that they wanted to display their ideas about space in a spacious way.
To that end, some of the photographs will be suspended in midair--held in place by wires above and below. Two especially long sets of photographs will be hung on a custom-built curved panel so that the viewer can take them in while standing in one place. These are Eadweard Muybridge's 13-panel panorama of San Francisco from 1878, below which will hang Mark Klett's "re-photography" of the city from the same location in 1990.
Instead of presenting the material in a straightforward chronology, Watts and Bohn-Spector came up with five themes, or ways of looking at space: range, pathway, grid, site and tribe.
"We wanted to come up with a narrative that allows people to let their imagination loose," Bohn-Spector says. "Rather than saying, 'Here's a neat story for you,' we wanted to jumble it up a little bit, take these spatial metaphors and make connections between format and region."
The early panoramas were often celebratory vistas--included is a rare daguerreotype panorama from 1853, "View of San Francisco," which is made up of six panels in its original gilded frame.
Around 1900, reasonably priced panoramic cameras became available, and they were commonly used to record civic or social events and land development projects. Thus, the lines of bathing beauties (a 1926 "Miss Los Angeles" contest at Ocean Park, for example), as well as bread lines (a 1924 bread line sponsored by an employment agency in Alamo City, Texas ).
In the 1960s and 1970s fine-art photographers began to pick up the format, and there has been a core dedicated to it ever since, including Laurie Brown, Lois Conner, Robert Dawson, Gus Foster, Karen Halverson, Skeet McAuley and Klett, who are all in the show. "It's important to keep in mind the audience for a historic panorama," Bohn-Spector says. "They were mostly commercial vehicles, versus fine arts vehicles, so we look at them slightly differently. But even for contemporary photographers, the ideas of the endless expanse are still very much present."
For Halverson, that connection was direct. In 1991 she moved from New York to Los Angeles, from the East to the West.
"I'd been doing photography in the West since the 1980s and used 4-by-5 and 6-by-9 cameras before," she says. "When I moved here, one of the first things that struck me was Mulholland Drive, which I knew about from seeing David Hockney's painting at the Met. Mulholland Drive is really interesting, it runs across the city and bisects it, and I wanted to photograph it and thought right away--panoramic camera."