By the time Richard Misrach arrived in the Sonoran Desert in the 1970s and made his luminous photos of saguaros, plenty of other photographers had been there, done that.
Masters of American Photography, the masterly summer show at Etherton Gallery, exhibits not only Misrach's cacti, shining in the nighttime desert of 40 years ago; it goes all the way back to the 19th century, when pioneering photographers roamed the West, including Timothy O'Sullivan, the Irishman who practically invented Arizona photography.
O'Sullivan gets credit for the first photo of a saguaro, the first San Xavier picture, and if not the first Indian portrait, at least one of the earliest. And he's near the head of the pack with the Grand Canyon. His pivotal 1871 "Black Cañon, Colorado River From Camp 8, Looking Above," displayed at Etherton, was an unprecedented view into the treacherous gorge.
Shot during the Wheeler expedition, a geographical survey launched in the early days of Manifest Destiny, O'Sullivan's albumen print is a startlingly unsentimental view of a forbidding landscape. The humans are dwarfed. A line of rough black cliffs towers over the explorers' boat. Tethered to the shore, the boat is small and rickety, an unworthy vessel in an unknown land.
A century later, after the West was won and the wilderness tamed, Misrach could stroll easily into the desert and celebrate its beauty. For his Night Desert series, he aimed artificial lights at the plants. In one untitled work, a saguaro blazes white in the darkness. Nearby, a full moon shines low on the horizon. "Untitled, Plate 23," from the same series, pictures a joyful ocotillo all lit up and flinging its branches against a golden-toned sky.
These beautiful gelatin silver prints are officially black and white, but the split-toning process allowed Misrach to infuse the works with subtle color. It's a lost art, though: The special paper the technique requires is no longer manufactured, and Misrach long ago moved on to full color. Likewise, O'Sullivan's onerous plate-glass technique is rarely attempted nowadays. He had to haul his heavy plates and other equipment into the outback, cart them across mountains, and float them up rivers.
Given proprietor Terry Etherton's personal and professional interest in historical photographs of the West, the 72-piece Masters, not surprisingly, includes numerous works from the intrepid wandering photogs. Their pleasure in the land is palpable. In Carleton Watkins' hands, "Bridal Veil Falls, 900 ft., Yosemite, California" becomes monumental and transcendent; the sepia-toned image, dating from 1864 or 1865, is the oldest picture in the show.
Adam Clark Vroman has a fine portrait of young girls up on the mesa in "A Hopi Doorway, Sichumovi Pueblo," a 1902 platinum print. These young women with their characteristic butterfly hairdos are side by side with Edward S. Curtis' more-formal portrait of "A Young Hopi Woman—Arizona," circa 1900. And like O'Sullivan, Curtis recorded "Canyon de Chelly" (1904), creating a now-iconic view of Indians riding horses in the distance, below the towering canyon walls.
Decades later, Ansel Adams trod some of these same paths, and Masters includes five of his black-and-whites. In a nod to Watkins, the gallery exhibits a Yosemite photo Adams shot in 1948, some 80 or 90 years after Watkins passed through. Adams generally tends toward the monumental, but "Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite National Park, California" shows an Adams more delicate than usual. It's a tree in winter, its branches dusted with snow.
But this show is by no means confined to chroniclers of the West. It's a who's-who of American photography. (All of the works are drawn from the gallery's own holdings.)
The opening room alone is jaw-dropping: It has one Eadweard J. Muybridge, one Alfred Stieglitz, three Frederick Sommers and three Harry Callahans.
Muybridge checks in with one of his famed time-motion studies, this one of fencers from his Animal Locomotion series, circa 1887. The photographer shot 12 sequential images of the two swordsmen as they thrusted and parried; arranged in rows, they're like stills from a movie. Muybridge's pictures, in fact, were precursors to motion pictures.
Stieglitz, father of Pictorialism, has a shot of a train belching smoke in an industrial city ("The Hand of Man," 1903), but it's soft and dreamlike.
Sommer lived much of his life in Arizona, and photographed its landscape in precision compositions. In "Jack Rabbit" (1938), the corpse of the dead animal has nearly vanished, but an outline of its body is etched into the desert floor. Sommer sometimes went for pure abstraction, as in "Cut Paper," 1973, an elegant arrangement of curves and shadows.
And Callahan has a couple of wonderful views of lakeshore Chicago. In "Eleanor, Chicago" (1949), his wife stands below the sheltering boughs of a tangle of winter trees.
It's only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that together with the pioneer photographers, these pivotal modernists influenced just about everyone else in the show.
Known for his stark and simple nature works, Callahan also reformulated family photography, making the personal universal. Following in those familial footsteps were Emmet Gowin and Sally Mann, both of whom photographed their families in the Virginia countryside. Gowin, a generation older than Mann, made "Nancy, Danville, Virginia," in 1969. It's a black-and-white print of a young girl relishing the summer, the fresh grass, the cool evening. Her hands are twisted in front of her, and her eyes are closed in pleasure.
Mann, who went so far as to name her son Emmett after Gowin (adding an extra t), famously photographed her three young children in the nude. "Shiva at Whistle Creek," 1992, is a beautiful composition of a young girl crouching in the stream, her knees clasped in her hands. A white wave cascades diagonally upward from her, and she looks intently down at the dark water, uncertain whether to leap or to stay.
Some bracing documentary and street photographs take the show in a different direction. "The Wake, Spanish Village," 1951, from W. Eugene Smith's famous photo-story for Life magazine, has the beauty of a Renaissance painting. The faces of the living and the dead are lit; all the rest is darkness.
Danny Lyon has one of his gorgeous photos from Conversations With the Dead, a series shot in the 1960s at a Texas prison. In "The Line," Lyon has captured a black-and-white world in black and white: The guards, all white, are dressed in black; the inmates, all black, are dressed in white. The guards are on horseback, and the prisoners are hoeing the fields. Everything has its place, and everything is beautifully composed. Yet a truer picture of horror and hell has rarely been made.
Other standouts are Alex Webb ("Tehuantepec, Mexico," 1985) and Aaron Siskind ("Chicago 30," 1950), and Tucson's own Harold Jones ("Wheel," 1978).
But about that Arizona landscape: Photographers still work it regularly, even though it's changed. New Topographics photog Henry Wessel Jr. pictured "Tucson, Arizona" in 1976 as a place where nature is maimed and tamed. He aims his camera through the blinds in a waiting room, and finds a desert where saguaros stand in rigid artificial rows.
Arizona State University professor Mark Klett photographs a changing Arizona. A student and fan of the expedition photogs, Klett participated in a project to re-photograph sites that O'Sullivan and others first photographed a century and a half ago. Much has changed in the land, but Klett still finds beauty there.
In Time Studies, he turns his eye on the Arizona sky, using long, slow exposures to record slow changes. In "Eclipse of the Moon" and "Six Quarter Moons," Klett captures the moon in multiples, photographing it again and again as it makes its way across the vast and unchanging Western sky.