The myth of the wilderness as ‘virgin’ uninhabited land had always been especially cruel when seen from the perspective of the indigenous people who had once called that land home. Now they were forced to move elsewhere, with the result that tourists could safely enjoy the illusion that they were seeing their nation in its pristine, original state, in the new morning of God’s own creation. — The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronin
From Sea to Shining Sea, HD video, 2022, 13:05 minutes
In the video From Sea to Shining Sea, that features excerpts of Walt Whitman’s ode to Western expansion, Pioneers! O pioneers!, I envision a 19th Century cinema, before the advent of celluloid film stock. The visual narrative spools out from a single image, Carleton Watkins’ Cape Horn, Near Celilo, 1867, often said to be a metaphor for America’s Manifest Destiny to stretch From Sea to Shining Sea. The same year Watkins’ first photographed the Columbia River Gorge, Timothey O’Sullivan was documenting sites in Utah, Nevada and the Southwest as part of a government surveying team parceling out the land for the onslaught of settlers to come. Five years later, Eadweard Muybridge would begin his quest to freeze motion with a camera.
The project was influenced by Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows, where she suggests that Muybridge’s sequential photographs of women going about their daily tasks were in advance of a cinema that could portray the emotional tenor of his tragic marriage to Flora that ended in the murder of Major Larkyns, her illicit lover.
Click on grid above for slide show.
I have long been fascinated by the experiments of 19th Century photographers, such as the addition of clouds to landscape images by Muybridge and Watkins or the photomontages of Henry Peach Robinson which appear in the Waking Dream project.
“For if you think of the past as a landscape, then history is the way we represent it, and it’s that act of representation that lifts us above the familiar to let us experience vicariously what we can’t experience directly as a wider view.” — The Landscape of History: How Historians map the past, John Lewis Gaddis
The project engages the subject of 19th Century American landscape photography and its influence on the westward expansion of the United States after the Civil War, through historical images in the public domain. The project focuses on three seminal photographers, Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge and Timothy O’Sullivan, who photographed the western United States and its inhabitants.
The removal of indigenous people to create an “uninhabited wilderness”—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is.” — The Trouble with Wilderness, William Cronin