Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 11, 2003
Martha A. Sandweiss Print the Legend: Photography and the American West New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 416 pp.; 148 b/w ills. $39.95 (0300095228)

Martha Sandweiss is not an art historian, and her ambitious new book is not a work of art history. Nonetheless, art historians interested in nineteenth-century photography in the United States should get their hands on a copy, because for them this book is not merely important but indispensable.

The historian Sandweiss has written a cultural history of how, between the 1840s and the 1890s, photography and the American West came to be entwined. Her primary concern is with the history of this nexus within public discourse, and consequently she attends mainly to photographic productions of public note, such as commercial stereograph sets, illustrated survey reports, and mass-produced albums. The issue that organizes the argument is the relationship between photography and narrative. Around this issue three themes constellate time and again: the limits of photography as a supplier of narrative, the meshing of photographs and text as a means of overcoming these limits, and the imperative of recognizing these historical meshings if we are to understand and use old photographs of the West in historically sensitive ways.

The first three chapters ably augment our otherwise thin literature on reportorial daguerreotypes made in the West. Only a small number of these images have survived, and Sandweiss wisely chooses to discuss many that have not. She begins with a probing discussion of daguerreotypes of the Mexican-American war, underscoring the technical and marketing problems that their producers faced. Comparing a daguerreotype of Henry Clay, Jr.’s gravesite with a hand-colored lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of Clay’s death, she meditates on the limits of the daguerreotype as a vehicle for the heroic narratives that the commercial market for pictures of the war favored. She then devotes a chapter to the relationship between photography and the panorama, stressing the importance at midcentury of the latter as a means of, and model for, visualizing the West as a narrative. At the heart of this chapter is a discussion of the panoramic work of John Wesley Jones, who in 1851 led a party of daguerreotypists and draughtspeople across the overland trail from California to St. Louis to amass views. Jones used photography as a royal road to drawing, evidently discarding his daguerreotypes when his panorama was complete. The third chapter considers the efforts by government explorers in the 1840s and 1850s to use daguerreotypy, paying special attention to John C. Frémont’s often feckless attempts to exploit the medium and the artist John Mix Stanley’s efforts on behalf of Isaac Ingalls Stevens. Sandweiss stresses that the utility of expedition daguerreotypes was largely limited to impressing locals and serving as the basis for report illustrations in other media. Throughout these three chapters, the author consistently emphasizes the shortcomings of daguerreotypes as vehicles of public narrative.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the wet-plate era in the West. The fourth offers a welcome account of the late 1850s and the pioneering work of C. C. Mills, J. D. Hutton, and Humphrey Lloyd Hime. Sandweiss highlights the ways in which the wet-plate process and the paper print facilitated the integration of photographs and text. At the same time, she trenchantly discusses the uncertainties with which government topographers and explorers approached photography as a means of technical illustration. In Chapter 5, Sandweiss undertakes the difficult task of saying something new about the much-studied high moment of wet-plate photography in the West in the years following the Civil War. To a significant extent, this chapter recapitulates familiar arguments against the ready assimilation of the survey photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson, and their peers into the standard categories of aesthetics and art history. The fifth chapter concludes with a neat summary of the argument up to that point, serving as an informal conclusion to this portion of the book.

The Chapters 6 and 7 tackle broader themes of greater historical scope. The sixth considers the relationship between photography and the American Indian, beginning with a stimulating account of early daguerreotypes and calotypes of American Indian subjects. The chapter ends with an unexpected (and perhaps questionably included) assessment of present-day demands by representatives of certain tribes for restricting access to historical photographs of tribal members and practices. While there are many good reasons for rejecting these demands, at times I found the author’s reasoning strained. At one point she insists that “history does not support the contention that the vast body of nineteenth-century photographs of Indian peoples and practices was made under coercive circumstances” (270). While Sandweiss and others have demonstrated that some nineteenth-century American Indians manipulated the production of their own images (Geronimo being a famous example), the evidence for coercive circumstances remains, in my view at least, overwhelming.

The seventh and final chapter provides an excellent discussion of the role of photography in the making of illustrated books and reports on the West. Of special value is the thoughtful analysis Sandweiss offers of the distinctive functions that the makers of these publications assigned to chromolithography, heliotypy, and other reproductive technologies. The epilogue deftly rounds out the argument with a consideration of the extent to which nostalgia already played a role in the production of photographs of the West by the late nineteenth century.

The book has two principal strengths. The first is the persistence with which Sandweiss coaxes the reader to attend to the participation of nineteenth-century photographs in narrative programs of various kinds. She soundly cautions us against neglecting this history of narrative instrumentation as we subject these photographs to new uses and values. The second principal strength of the book, which outweighs the first, is the scholarly wealth of its details. Few people have spent as much time as Sandweiss poring over nineteenth-century photographs and related documents in American libraries and archives. In particular, her long immersion in the superb collection of Western Americana in the Beinecke Library at Yale University has clearly played a crucial role in the book’s formation. The result of her dedication is an empirical richness throughout the text, as well as a set of footnotes more varied and useful than any other on the same subject. Scholars will be paying their respects to Sandweiss for generations to come.

Despite its strengths—or perhaps because of them—this book is bound to elicit objections. The role of narrative in the production and reception of photographs in the United States during the nineteenth century is a vital interdisciplinary problem. Ever since Alan Trachtenberg addressed it in a series of groundbreaking essays,1 it has attracted the interest of scholars in the fields of history, American studies, and art history. Scholars taking up this problem must therefore negotiate a complex professional readership that harbors a diverse and contradictory set of assumptions and expectations. No negotiation will please every reader. This holds true for Print the Legend: even as Sandweiss attempts to convince her fellow historians that “photographs can, indeed, be rich primary source documents” (7), art historians may find themselves wanting to grant photographs an even greater role in the reconstruction of their historical meanings than she permits.

Indeed, such is the nature of my most fundamental qualm with this excellent book: I cannot help but think that the author insists overmuch on the deferral of photography to text in the determination of meaning. Here and there in the book, Sandweiss seems to assume a priori the capacity of captions, legends, and other textual commentaries to control and contain the meanings of photographs. Too often the result is a circular logic whereby the text accompanying photographs in an album or report is used both as evidence of the attempt to spin their reception and, by default, as evidence of that reception itself. For example, in her discussion of Lt. George M. Wheeler’s use of a particular photograph, Sandweiss writes: “As Wheeler’s needs for the picture changed, his descriptive interpretations changed, and in the absence of other evidence one can only surmise that public understanding of the images shifted accordingly” (194).

The words trouble me: “one can only surmise.” Is there no other choice? The problem at its core is evidentiary: we have astonishingly few traces of the use and reception of certain kinds of photographs in the nineteenth century. How often did people ignore captions, legends, and the text on the backs of stereograph cards? Did owners keep stereograph sets and mounted sets of prints in the prescribed order or did they shuffle them around? How often did they tack a single print up on the wall? Did they always look at every picture in a set or album or did they sometimes leaf through casually, sometimes moving forward and sometimes back? How free did they feel to read photographs against the grain of the text that accompanied them? We do not have good answers to these questions and perhaps never will. With history adrift in this factual void, Sandweiss is unwilling to impute to nineteenth-century viewers what we might call, with a nod to Michel de Certeau, tactics of consumption, and she is reluctant to impute to the photographs any endogenous import of their own. The result is that the historical meanings of these photographs are entirely surrendered to the written authorities.

This problem is acute when we find ourselves confronted with an exceptional photographer working for an unexceptional writer. In discussing the photographs of the Colorado River that O’Sullivan took for Wheeler, for example, Sandweiss acknowledges that the hauntingly tranquil photographs “could sometimes seem at odds” with the discussion of heroism in the accompanying album legends (187). But she refuses to give this resistance any historical weight. Indeed, she quotes John Wood’s interpretation of the photographs as presenting “man… as cerebral and reflective in the face of nature,” only to object that “such a subjective reading reveals nothing about O’Sullivan’s intent (undocumented), Wheeler’s ambitions (revealed in the album), or contemporary audiences’ reading of the pictures…” (187–88). The rhetorical torque of this criticism disturbs me. Of the three coordinates of meaning to which Sandweiss alludes—O’Sullivan’s intent, Wheeler’s ambitions, and the interpretation of contemporary audiences—she only indicates parenthetically the available documentation for the first two. But we have no more documentation of the interpretations of nineteenth-century viewers than we have of O’Sullivan’s intentions (less, arguably). So if only textual and contextual documentations count, then we must give over the historical meaning of O’Sullivan’s extraordinary photographs, in both their production and reception, entirely to the words and arrangements of Wheeler. This is a shame, because Wheeler was a hack writer and shameless promoter.

In the end, this book reads not only as a summation of many well-spent years in the archives, but also as a summation of a certain moment in the historical study of photography. Over the past twenty years, Sandweiss and several other prominent scholars of photography have valorized context as a source of historical security, as a means of debunking the fanciful, unmoored interpretations of photographs common in coffee-table prose. But Print the Legend left this reader wondering about the limits of context as a guarantee against ahistorical mythmaking. What happens when scholars virtually fashion the historical tissue connecting context to reception from context itself? When do we declare this fashioning a mythicizing move of its own?

However we answer these questions, the virtues of this splendid book will endure. Sandweiss has given us an essential addition to the literature on nineteenth-century American photography, which is a profound and very welcome achievement.

Robin Kelsey
Shirley Carter Burden Professor of Photography, History of Art and Architecture Department, Harvard University

1 Collected in Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989)

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