Though railroads hastened America's westward expansion in the mid-1800s, it was the images of the West in all its grandeur, captured by a few intrepid photographers, that fueled the imaginations of those who ventured forth.

A collection of these original frontier pictures will be displayed April 1-May 11 at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville. The exhibit, "Mapping the West: 19th Century American Landscape Photographs," includes 109 images on loan from the Boston Public Library. In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum has scheduled an April 26 symposium examining the role art and photography played in the shaping of the American frontier.

The photographs, on exhibit in the main gallery of the museum's Katy and E. Don Walker Education Center, feature the work of four noteworthy photographic pioneers engaged in a variety of projects aimed at surveying and promoting the vast expanse of the post-Civil War West.

"Most of the people living in Boston, New York and Philadelphia had never been west of the Hudson River," explained Patrick Nolan, director of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum. "It was the images captured by these early artists that created the mythology of the western frontier."

Photographic technology was still in its infancy when these lensmen set off toward the remote corners of the wilderness. They traveled with mule trains packing giant cameras, darkroom equipment, chemicals, and the fragile glass plates used to create photographic negatives in the "wet-collodion process" used at the time.

Picture taking was not an easy task on the frontier. Before the photographers could take a picture, they had to unpack, set up tents and prepare the negatives by pouring emulsion onto large sheets of glass. Once prepared, the negatives had to be exposed and quickly developed. Then began the delicate task of transporting these fragile glass plates, often hundreds of miles over rough terrain, for the remainder of the journey.

The enormous expense, cumbersome tools and harsh conditions ensured that these pioneer photographers worked not as solitary artists but as collaborative partners. Their patrons included government and scientific interests, railroad companies and a variety of Eastern entrepreneurs anxious to exploit the resources of these vast unspoiled regions added to the U.S. just prior to the war.

"Mapping the West" includes four kinds of these collaborative projects:

Because of the limpid clarity, great beauty, and often spectacular size of the photographs made with the wet-collodion process and printed on smooth albumen-coasted paper, they have often been seen as art objects alone. Yet whether art or advertisement, the images all demonstrate the compelling power of the photographic language.

According to Kim Sichel, a Boston University art historian, these images contributed to the changing myth of the American West in a variety of ways.

"Western photographers adopted certain accepted symbols of the West, such as the great American desert and the Indian as noble savage," Sichel said. "Yet these photographs, through their lyrical imagery and the enticing captions, act as powerful tools of visual persuasion to beckon settlers and investors westward."

The photographers' use of formal framing, she said, helped easterners to mentally shape and therefore control the uncharted new terrain the United States had just acquired.

"In the images," Sichel continued, "the great American desert becomes the Garden of Eden, the void becomes farmland, Indians represent not a current enemy but a passing civilization, and the topography itself is transformed from a sublime wilderness to a manageable territory for mining and other land uses. Encoded in their formal compositions are the cultural messages of manifest destiny."

It is this redefining of the Western mythos through imagery that the museums' April 26 "Spring Symposium" will explore. Entitled "Western Visions: Art and Photography of the Frontier," the day-long event will feature presentations from four noted authorities on western art and photographic history:

The museum's Spring Symposium and the photographic exhibit are open, at no charge, to the general public.

"The symposium is always somewhat academic," Nolan said, "but never enough to exclude the general public."

All symposium attendees are invited to enjoy a $10 lunch at the museum, but must RSVP to (409) 294-1832 no later than April 21.

"We are very thrilled about the opportunity to host this important exhibit and symposium," said Nolan. "Our museum is dedicated to preserving and expanding knowledge of the life and times of General Sam Houston, hero of the Texas Revolution."

"It was, after all, Texas independence and the annexation of Texas that focused U.S. attention on the West," he continued. "The annexation triggered the war with Mexico, and it was the war with Mexico that yielded California, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and most of what we call the West today."

Sam Houston Memorial Museum is located at the corner of 19th Street and Avenue N in Huntsville, Texas. The museum is open from 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tours are given Saturdays and Sundays at 1 p.m. and by arrangement to large groups. For more information contact the museum at 409-294-1832 or Derrick Birdsall. You can also check out the Sam Houston Memorial Museum Web site.


Media Contact: Phillip Rollfing

March 19, 1997