Camera Obscura: Photography as Critique

Re-SITE-ing the West: Contemporary Photographs from the Permanent Collection
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Los Angeles, CA
Jae Emerling


Michael Light, Some Dry Space (detail), 2003.

Michael Light, Some Dry Space (detail), 2003. Bound artist’s book containing pigment (Epson) prints from a digital source, Ed. 3 of 8. Each 35 3/4 x 44 1/2 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Fund. © Michael Light.

Despite being consigned to a single gallery space, the exhibition Re-SITE-ing the West: Contemporary Photographs from the Permanent Collection offered a remarkable commentary on the marquee exhibition The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The former was a collection of photographic-based works from LACMA’s permanent collection, presented by the curators as a “complement” to the latter, which originated at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. What was remarkable was how the twenty works in Re-SITE-ing the West, some by canonical figures such as Ed Ruscha and Lee Friedlander, confounded the main exhibition. Traces, erasures, fault lines, and shadows were found throughout these works, thereby presenting the “West” as a concept within American history that continues to be defined through an ideological opposition between nature and history.

Before turning to some images from Re-SITE-ing the West, I would like to address The Modern West. This was the type of exhibition that exists because it is guaranteed corporate sponsorship, due in part to its bland pantomime of a necessary, intriguing museum show. In short, it did little to counter the well-known myth of the “West” as a space of economic and spiritual renewal. As neither a critical rehabilitation of an atrophied concept like the “West,” nor an inspired grouping of less than predictable artworks, the exhibition was remarkable only for the photographs on display.

More than the paintings by Frederick Remington, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keefe, and even Jackson Pollock (whom the curators are determined to present as a “Western” painter, whatever that may mean), of most interest were the photographs by Eadweard Muybridge, Laura Gilpin, Paul Strand, Edward Steichen, Ansel Adams, and others. Leaving aside the inherent problems of an exhibition intent on taking “visitors on an epic journey [that] explores the definitive impact of the Western landscape on Modern art in America,” it becomes evident that at the heart of the “modern West” and/or “Modern art in America” there remains the pressing question of photography.1 Only through a discussion of photography’s documentary pretensions as well as its role in colonizing Cather) present itself as the critical experiment of modern American national identity.2

As a discursive construct, the “West” is a fiction composed within the interstices of various representational strategies, including politics and modernist art. At their best, several of the contemporary works in Re-SITE-ing expose this interstitial site of creation. Particularly in works by Mark Ruwedel, Lewis Baltz, and Thomas Barrow, we see not only a desire to deconstruct the nature/history double-bind, but also no pretense of simply recording or documenting a factual presence. This is not to characterize these works as mere parodies of now famous W.P.A. photographic projects from the1930s or even earlier post-Civil War survey expeditions that produced the extraordinary work of Timothy O’Sullivan and Carleton Watkins (both represented in The Modern West). More than ironic parodies, these works, especially through their relation to the main exhibition, demonstrate how and why contemporary photography remains so crucial to critical thought. These photographic texts maintain the “West” as a condition of anxiety: a condition of the frontier—the threshold between people, places, things, and states of existence. As a social and psychic imaginary, the “West” has lasting, inescapable effects. One is a compulsion to re-present it, that is, to rehearse and recollect our benighted modernity: our skepticism and clarity, our debasement and possibility.

While examining the photographs in The Modern West I noted a counter-narrative: a breach of the historicist and often outright formalist façade being presented. This was suggested by works like Weston’s “Hot Coffee,” Mojave Desert (1937) and Strand’s The Dark Mountain, New Mexico (1931). Both of these photographs configure the “West” as a condition in which putative natural spaces are littered with signs and advertisements. In Strand’s image the “natural” vista is blocked by a boarded structure (the side of a storefront which may or may not be abandoned). A sense of isolation saturates this photograph as well as Weston’s image, which suggests how large portions of the western U.S. are transient spaces, ones we move through on the way elsewhere. Weston’s photograph is dominated by roadside ads for hot coffee, church sermons, the territory west of the Mississippi does the “great fact” of the West (to borrow from Willa and movies that plead with us to stop, if only for a moment, as we careen by. Ostensibly the work of these two photographers seems appropriate to the thematic framework of the main exhibition; however, in terms of what is at stake conceptually in these late modernist works, they seem to adumbrate the lines of inquiry and critical perspectives that drive the works on display in the gallery above.

The extension of this type of late modernist practice is discernible in postwar photographs that present us with an idiosyncratic topology—a text of signs without referents—that somehow remains referential. For example, Ruscha’s contribution was a set of thirty photographs of parking lots done in 1967. This repetitive terrain of paved spaces for cars foregrounds the familiar problems of postwar American suburbia like homogeneity, boredom, and even redundancy. These problems result from a transient and perhaps even temporary culture that arose in the 1950s throughout America, but particularly in western states. In fact, these “parking lots” are nothing less than the lines that define the parking spaces. These man-made demarcations that measure and organize space serve as uncanny reiterations of the nineteenth-century practice of surveying and claiming the “West” as American territory. Arguably one of the best representations of this underlying motivation to overwrite the landscape through “modern” scientific and artistic means (on display in The Modern West) is O’Sullivan’s Inscription Rock, New Mexico (1873) with its black ruler bisecting the image, positioning and measuring the inscription (noting the Spanish conquest of North America in the sixteenth century) above and a single plant below. Traversed in these images by O’Sullivan and Ruscha is the transition between conceiving of the “West” as a space to be domesticated (ethnically and militarily) to one that has been “settled.” The effects of this domestication instigate a reassessment of how we have measured the areas and histories that we refer to as the “West.” In other words, how it was “settled,” even more than how it was “won,” affects how we dwell in this space today.

Several of the works in the exhibition interrogated this concept of dwelling. Some did this by addressing social injustices, such as Anthony Hernandez’s Landscapes for the Homeless #18 (1988-91), but the majority focused on “nature,” in part because it provides an opportunity to foreground the continuum between the past and the present, the particular and the geopolitical. In addition to images of outright ecological misuse such as Robert Adams’s Quarried Mesa Top, Pueblo County, Co. (1978; printed 1983), the contemporary art genre of land art also played a role. Both David Maisel’s Terminal Mirage #215-9 (2003), in which Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) is clearly visible, and James Turrell’s Stereoscopic Aerial View of Roden Crater (1982) were positioned at the beginning of the exhibition with an accompanying wall text that read: “…the artists in this exhibition celebrate the West as a site in and of itself, without imposed illusions, allusions, and romantic pretensions.” Whether or not these canonical projects (Spiral Jetty and Roden Crater) can be characterized in this way is worth debating. Whatever comes of that discussion does not detract in the least from what the presence of these two works provides the exhibition: the opportunity to examine other ways of addressing the “land” or “nature” that are much less grandiose and yet nonetheless compelling.

Henry Wessel, Jr., San Francisco, 1977.

Henry Wessel, Jr., San Francisco, 1977. Gelatin silver print, 10 3/8 x 15 9/16 inches. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of Lewis Baltz. © Henry Wessel, Jr.

For instance, consider the photograph by Henry Wessel, Jr. entitled San Francisco (1977). Here the suburban setting recedes into the background as the fledging tree, nearly bound as a martyr, makes us attentive not only to how meaning is constructed, but to the dangerous premise of economic discourse as well: the notion of a limitless future where nothing is irreparable. The intersection of economics and ecology that takes place right outside our front doors renders sign and referent, thereby making life as such immanent and yet ever so tenuous. Rather than idyllic “little flowers,” what we see here is an unimaginable wound.

Simply put, at stake in these contemporary works is an attempt to re-site the “West” by giving it a geographical (ecological) and historical specificity. However, with few exceptions, they present a “site” as aporetic and delusory. This is noteworthy because it seems to contradict the aim of providing specificity, that is, to undermine the mythology of the “West” so unashamedly promoted in the primary exhibition. Rather than capturing some locale, image, or referent that furthers the mythology of the “West” as a source of national and artistic regeneration, these photographic texts themselves function as the puncta within the discursive space of the “West” as nature/history. The lesson of reading these photographs is the ethical lesson of the punctum, the “kairos of desire, which unravels any chronology,” the wound that founds all interpretation.3 In other words, these texts implore us to remain “as attentive as possible to all the differences, [because] one must be able to speak of a punctum in all signs…in any discourse…[rather than hold] to some naïve and ‘realist’ referentialism, it is the relation to some unique and irreplaceable referent that interests us and animates our most sound and studied readings.”4 Photography, therefore, takes place precisely between singularity and metonymy, between specificity and dissolution; its lessons are never more than so many readings that are meant to expose us to this threshold between, that is, where we must come to dwell.

I will end with the most remarkable photographic project included in Re-SITE-ing the West, one that undoubtedly deserves a sound and studied reading: Mark Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire (1998-99). Four images from this project were included in the exhibition; all were sites of absence and foreclosure. In Nevada Short Line #1 (1998), for example, Ruwedel photographs the trace of a long abandoned railroad. Despite having long been removed, the wooden ties and steel tracks have indelibly transfigured the landscape itself, altering its contours like so many burial mounds and archaeological tells. However, one image in particular stands out as it suggests the punctum of postwar life as such: the (im)possibility of complete erasure, the advent of nuclear power and its attendant consequences.

Mark Ruwedel, Deep Creek #2, 1999.

Mark Ruwedel, Deep Creek #2, 1999. From the series Westward the Course of Empire, 1998–99. Gelatin silver print, 7 3/8 x 9 1/4. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Ralph M. Parsons Fund. © Mark Ruwedel.

The photograph Deep Creek #2 (1999) shows an area where access is barred, an aporia within the cultural geography of the “West.” It shows, but does not expose the location of, a U.S. Air Force nuclear facility. Here we are forbidden from bearing witness to the activities of our government; the same government which at the onset of the nuclear age encouraged the act of witnessing by setting up spectator areas in Nevada and other places where atomic testing occurred. What Ruwedel offers us is an image of a past which has not passed. Rather than a simple temporal chronology, the photograph documents nothing but the intimacy between the past as that which haunts and the past as that which shames. With Ruwedel’s photograph before me I am forced to take up a relation to the past that acknowledges the logic of nature as history and history as nature, one that regards the traces of past as inescapable reminders of shirked geopolitical responsibility. With this photograph in front of me I am reminded of those lines from John Donne which came to Robert Oppenheimer on July 16, 1945, because only in the middle of the desert do these words acquire the necessary weight: “As west and east / In all flat maps…are one, / So death doth touch the Resurrection” (“Hymn to God My God, in My Sicknesses”).

Jae Emerling is assistant professor of modern/contemporary art at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. He is the author of Theory for Art History (Routledge, 2005) and is currently working on a study of Cy Twombly and contemporaneity.


  1. This is a statement from a wall text in the first room of the exhibition at LACMA.
  2. Willa Cather is one of the great twentieth-century American authors. Her two extraordinary novels O Pioneers! (1913) and My Antonia (1918) include some of the most beautiful, engaging descriptions and interpretations of the western American landscape and life.
  3. The term punctum, along with its corollary studium, are central to Roland Barthes’s famous reading of photography given in his Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981). These terms are defined in my chapter on Barthes in Theory for Art History (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).
  4. Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 61.
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