- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

Few regions have been mythologized as much as the American West. Cowboys riding into the sunset, Indians attacking helpless settlers, these cliches survive through countless Hollywood movies and television shows.

“Faces of the Frontier” at the National Portrait Gallery exposes their origins through famous and forgotten figures from the early days of the West. Notorious outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are here, and so are obscure figures such as Crow chieftain Plenty Coups and anthropologist Alice Fletcher, who lived on the Omaha reservation.

The four-part survey of more than 100 images is as expansive as the territory it covers. Artists who romanticized the West are shown alongside the railroad magnates who controlled the land, the explorers who inventoried the region and the native people who were forced to give it up.

Their portraits, dating from 1849 to 1923, were made through the nascent medium of photography. Curator Frank H. Goodyear III has drawn almost all of the vintage prints, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, from the museum’s collection.

One of the joys of the show is being able to view stereographs as they were intended. When seen together, the two, side-by-side photographs create a three-dimensional effect. In one such image, a grizzly bear shot by George Custer dramatically lunges into the foreground.

The exhibit begins with Mathew Brady’s portrait of President James Polk, whose commitment to Manifest Destiny — a doctrine tied to the inevitability of conquering territory from sea to sea — led to the nation’s second-largest expansion. Polk secured the Pacific Northwest and went on to annex California, Nevada and a vast tract of the Southwest through the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War.

Abraham Lincoln, pictured before his presidential election, extended this investment in the West. He signed the Homestead Act, opening millions of acres for farming, and legislation authorizing the first transcontinental railroad.

Featured in a section called “Land” are some of the powerful men who came to control those rail lines, some of them as hefty as locomotives. Among these dark-suited Victorians was Joseph Glidden, whose patent for barbed wire accelerated ranching in the West.

Tens of thousands of settlers went to California during the gold rush and with them came a backlash to preserve the state’s natural beauty. Homesteader Galen Clark helped convince Lincoln to designate the Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees as park land.

Dwarfed by a redwood called “Grizzly Giant” — a pose favored by several subjects in the show — Clark is portrayed by noted Western photographer Carleton Watkins, whose playful self-portrait as a miner is also on display.

More conventionally depicted are conservationists George Bird Grinnell, who helped establish Glacier National Park; John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club; and the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot.

Looming large within the group is President Theodore Roosevelt, who made land conservation a national issue. His striking portrait is by Edward S. Curtis, who spent more than 30 years photographing indigenous Americans. Curtis, pictured in a dashing self-portrait, cashed in on the nostalgia for Indian life during the early 1900s by staging romantic scenes complete with props and costumes.

Portraits of writers and painters who similarly popularized the West are scattered throughout the show. Mark Twain poses between two humorists who accompanied him on a lecture tour. Jack London is shown in handsome profile before he earned acclaim for “The Call of the Wild.” Bearded Thomas Moran, whose dramatic Western landscapes precede the exhibit, is photographed with brushes and palette.

In addition to these artists are the scientists who created detailed maps and documents for opening the region to expansion. A section devoted to exploration highlights geologists such as Clarence King, who mapped California; Ferdinand Hayden, who surveyed Yellowstone; and John Wesley Powell, who led the first expedition through the Grand Canyon.

One of the few influential women to be pictured is Matilda Coxe Stevenson, an anthropologist responsible for shaping the first federal laws preserving archaeological sites.

Examples of photography as political propaganda abound in a section titled “Discord.” After the Civil War, when Indian reservations were first being defined, tribal delegations routinely visited Washington to meet with federal officials. Treaties were signed and the negotiators recorded in group photographs such as the ones in the show.

Portraits of individual Indians, including Geronimo, Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, play to the stock characters of noble savage, aggressive warrior and cooperative chieftain. The earliest known photograph of an Indian, an 1847 daguerreotype taken in St. Louis, shows Sauk chief Keokuk in a bear-claw necklace.

Concluding the exhibit is a hodgepodge of portraits themed to “Possibilities.” From California blue-jeans king Levi Strauss to Montana’s Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, these figures embody the unconventionality associated with the West. They include legendary outlaws such as Jesse James, whose angelic portrait goes against type.

Part of the fun of the show is seeing old photos of figures like Kit Carson, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, who turn out to be far plainer than biopics suggest. An exception is the theatrical portrait of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, whose touring Wild West show did more to popularize the myths of the region than any novel or painting.

Hollywood gave modern form to this entertainment in Western-themed films. Among the final images are publicity stills of actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix, who appeared in these early movies.

By the mid-1920s, when the cowboy-and-Indian films were being made, the nation’s indigenous peoples had been finally recognized as Americans and granted U.S. citizenship.

WHAT: “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924”

WHERE: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets Northwest

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, through Jan. 24


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.npg.si.edu

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