An Ideological Critique of the American Frontier Myth
in the Photography of Arthur Rothstein and Alan Berner
Brian W. Kratzer
University of Missouri-Columbia
School of Journalism
1614 Secretariat Dr.
Columbia, Mo., 65202
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This research project compares photographs of the American frontier by
Arthur Rothstein during the Depression and Alan Berner during the 1990s
using the method of ideological critique. The photographs, or cultural
products, are framed by the frontier myth. This framing allows comparison
of the myth in these photographs that are connected by subject matter. The
goal is to interpret how the photographers perceived the West during their
era in relation to the goals of their individual photography projects. This
research suggests that an ingrained psyche reflected the style, subject
matter and intended goal of each body of work. The results show that both
photographers used frontier themes deeply rooted in society to communicate
their redefined versions of the American West.
An Ideological Critique of the American Frontier Myth
in the Photography of Arthur Rothstein and Alan Berner
The American ideology has deep roots in the frontier myth. Cultural
products abound with examples of cowboys, explorers and individualists.
This myth is embedded in the American cultural psyche through the
repetition of the myths in film, storybook and other creative works. This
research compares the photographic interpretations of the American frontier
by two photographers from two different eras. First, Arthur Rothstein's
Farm Security Administration work will be examined for clues alluding to
his understanding and perpetuation of the myth in 1930s America. Second,
Alan Berner's revisiting of the West, inspired by Rothstein, will attempt
to locate the myths of the new West. This framing focuses the research into
the photographers' ideologies, allowing insight into their work. The goal
is to interpret how the photographers perceived the West of their era in
relation to the goals of their individual photography projects.
Framing the Myth
The frontier myth is based on the idea that American development and
freedom advances into the unknown, with isolation and individualism held in
high regard. Though the American frontier was controversially declared
"closed" in 1893 by historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1963), Americans
held deeply to the idea that there was still room to explore, settle and
discover. The underlying discomfort of being "closed" intruded upon the
idea of the ever-expanding American frontier. Turner wrote, "The existence
of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of
American settlement westward, explain American development" (1963, p. 27).
This idea of development and encroachment is not new, but when Turner
brought it to light, it effectively changed the perceptions of his day.
There had always been free land to the west to escape into, to break away
from the urban, social and economic ills of the East. Turner referred to
this ability to escape as a "safety valve." This metaphor has been repeated
in nearly all the research found. The frontier has helped America gather
nationality and intellectual traits from crossing successive frontiers
beginning with America's colonial days. The new Americans had to conquer
each frontier such as the East, Appalachia, the Midwest, the Louisiana
Purchase and the Oregon Territory. Characteristics awarded to frontiersmen
and their followers include such attributes as "coarseness and strength
combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn
of mind" and "that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism"
(Turner, 1963, p.57). These are traits inherently American and are brought
to the surface in everything American because of the frontier mentality
This formation of the frontier myth begins to outline the complex beliefs
and symbols of the American frontier, also described as a "myth-ideological
system," where a tension begins to form between myth and ideology. This
tension is documented in the relationship between Turner and Theodore
Roosevelt. Turner was concerned with ideology and not the myth of the
American frontiersman that is retold through narratives that are based less
on fact and more on nostalgia. Roosevelt's use of the West was based on the
myth that culture fuels through storybooks and tales. One of the
conclusions drawn from the comparison of Turner and Theodore Roosevelt is
that Teddy himself became a myth through his desire for it. It was the
exception when someone from that era had the time and money to escape to
Dakota for the western experience, only to return to the East when he
desired. Teddy manifested the myth onto himself by imitating what
mythic/nostalgic views he had about the American frontier (Slotkin, 1981).
Teddy was looking for a new life in the West, which is an important theme
to the frontier myth: the imbedded promise of a new life (McMullen, 1996,
One conquest of the frontier is that of the agrarian success in the Great
American Desert in the heart of Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase. From
1870 to 1880, the population of Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado tripled. The
population of the Dakotas was increasing. Kansas led the Union in corn
production in 1883. This benefited the East, where the insurance companies
and the banks held mortgages to some farms, and half the populations
leaving for the West were immigrants (Smith, 1959, p. 214). Agrarian theory
does not endorse the industrialization of the East. This deflects political
and economical power from the Great Plains, keeping the frontier within the
isolationist characteristic. This isolation eventually shows result during
the Roaring Twenties' rise of the prosperity in the cities. This eastern
prosperity ignored the agrarian culture's issues. In fact, there was a
growing contempt for the "hicks in the boondocks" (Smith, 1959; Murdoch,
2001). During the Depression, the conquest of the plains was in doubt. What
was called the "garden" in many texts was turned to dust. To remain in the
West was to fight nature and any inner voices saying "leave." This
reiterates the characteristics needed to survive. It took a strong, coarse
person to survive an environment such as the Dust Bowl.
Popular culture is one purveyor of the frontier myth, focusing on common or
central themes such as characteristics of land and human, and the
importance in determining good from evil. America's political life has done
much to keep the myth alive. The stories about the people of the frontier
are based on myth, from the mid-1800s to the present. The "myths are
stories drawn from a society's history that have acquired through
persistent usage of the power of symbolizing that society's ideology and of
dramatizing its moral consciousness" (Slotkin, 1992, p. 5). A quick look at
American leaders can show how the frontier myth is adapted and redefined.
Presidents are a good example because their image is nearly as produced as
the movies. John F. Kennedy related to a new frontier that included third
world countries and outer space. Lyndon Johnson is perhaps the most
"cowboy" of any of the 20th century presidents (Slotkin, 1992), but that
doesn't keep Ronald Reagan and the George Bushes from conjuring up images
of the frontier. With media in tow, Nancy and Ron rode horseback on their
California ranch, and George W. Bush cleared sagebrush with a chainsaw in
Texas. The images helped reinforce the American ideal. "Americans of the
present day cherish an image that defines what Americans think of their
past" and project that upon themselves (Rushing, 1983, p. 18).
What created this image? Stories about Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Wild Bill
Hickok, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Jesse James written by James
Fenimore Cooper, Zane Grey and Lord Byron romanticized and mythicized. And
who needed actual characters to write about when Henry David Thoreau and
Ralph Waldo Emerson could write about what wilderness was? Then there was
film: Gene Autry, Roy Rodgers, the Lone Ranger, Ronald Reagan and John
Wayne. The point with these examples is the overt connotations of good
guy/bad guy, heroism, individualism and becoming part of the ever-moving
frontier, incapable of settling down (Simonson, 1989; White and Limerick,
1994). The idea of frontier must be taken beyond these meanings to also
include the promise of a new life and what McMullen (1996) calls an "inner
space." He argues that this move toward inner space reflects American
dissatisfaction with the perpetual desire for acquisition and consumption"
(1996, p. 31).
Another version of the frontier myth, or the New West, is "a response to
growing American frustration with advances in technology jobs lost to
automation and residences poisoned by industrial waste that have
developed along with the demise of the old west" (1996, p. 32). McMullen
creates a New West versus Old West theme, which helps the frontier myth
flex beyond the more obvious popular culture themes. The transition of
frontiers is gradual as the new incorporates the old, forming a melded
hybrid (Rushing, 1986, p. 266).
Rothstein and Berners' photographs were studied using an ideological
critique. These photographs are cultural products, which means they are
created objects that communicate meaning through a symbolic system. "The
analysis of cultural products then becomes a convenient way in which to
study ideology" (Cormack, 1995, p. 26). The knowledge of conscious
processes entering into the critique is imperative. The basis of critique
requires the human interpretation, a judgment, which in itself is
ideological in content. The photographs themselves are important to study,
but justly so is the context and history attached to the work and the
photographers (Rushing and Frentz, 1991). This history provides a depth to
the critique beyond just "beliefs and value judgements" (Cormack, 1995, p.
27). So, the historical context serves as a subtext to the work, according
to Frederic Jameson (Wander, 1983). Jameson describes the importance of
historical context as "the one absolute and we may even say
'transhistorical' imperative of all dialectical thought" (Cormack, 1995, p.
27). These works reflect their production, from the photographers' goals
to the final product (Sholle, 1988, p. 24).
An ideology is made up of beliefs, ideas and world views. Using ideology,
it will be possible to separate every day views from those of the socially
constructed (Cormack, 1995). To do this, Cormack (1995) has outlined and
used five categories of analysis for the ideological critique. They are
content, structure, absence, style and mode of address. Content's four
basic elements are judgments, vocabulary, characters and actions. These
will be "used to express a view of reality" (1995, p. 29) shared by the
audience. Structure is based on the "order of delivery" (1995, p. 29), with
a focus on the opening and closing elements. Absence studies what has been
avoided or left out of the cultural product. Style explores the way in
which the content has been created. In this visual medium, it could relate
to lighting, camera and lens use or composition. Mode of address looks at
the way in which the cultural product is presented.
This study uses an ideological critique to compare two photographers' work
about the American West. The work was created 50 years apart. The first
photographs examined are those in Arthur Rothstein's book, The American
West in the Thirties, 122 Photographs by Arthur Rothstein. The second work
studied is by Alan Berner's work in The West, Pictures from a strange and
ordinary land, published in The Seattle Times Sunday magazine, Pacific
Magazine, and later in Life magazine. Providing a critique of each
individual photograph is not practical, so the research focuses on several
images and the works as a whole using the five categories of analysis to
search for a continuation of the frontier myth.
Documenting the West
The first photographer Roy Stryker hired for the Historical Section of the
Farm Security Administration was Arthur Rothstein. The year was 1935, and
Rothstein had just graduated from Columbia University where he was a
founder of the University Camera Club and photography editor for the school
paper. For the next seven years, 11 photographers would amass 272,000
photographs while working for the government as part of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Stryker would send these prints to media across
the country promoting the projects and effects of the New Deal without
ignoring the social and economic disaster occurring during the 1930s
(Rothstein, 1981, preface; 1986, p. 35-36; Severin, p. 191).
Rothstein said: "It was our job to document the problems of the Depression
so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to
alleviate them. I learned to be an eyewitness to events and to report in a
sensitive and intelligent way the relationships of people to their
environments" (1986, p. 36). Stryker believed in the power of photography
and wanted his staff of photographers to photograph in a documentary
manner, placing importance on the "realistic, documentary image as a vital,
significant expression of photographic art" (1986, p. 36). Stryker wanted
well-photographed images catering to the New Deal philosophy.
These were Rothstein's formative years. The photographs he created during
this period, specifically, those published in The American West in the
Thirties, 122 Photographs by Arthur Rothstein, served as inspiration for
Alan Berner's work 50 years later. This inspiration led to the publication
of The West, Pictures from a strange and ordinary land, published in
Pacific Magazine and later in Life magazine. Berner became trained in
documentary photography while getting dual degrees in journalism and
philosophy at the University of Missouri. The school has a tradition of
documentary photography that began with Cliff Edom, the founder of
photojournalism education as well as the Missouri Photo Workshop. Edom had
corresponded with Stryker as Edom planned for both the photojournalism
program and the workshop (Edom and Smith, 1993).
The two essays on the West, though 50 years apart, share in inspiration,
subject matter and ideological approach to photography. They photographed
Americans living and reacting on their frontiers, in whatever manner those
In their gathering of images, both photographers were given the opportunity
to immerse themselves in their work. Stryker gave Rothstein, and all of the
FSA photographers for that matter, freedom to explore and document what
they found. This was the essence of their job (Rothstein, 1979; 1986). For
Berner, he was awarded the 1995 National Press Photographer's Association
Nikon Sabbatical; an annual grant for photographers dedicated to
documenting a personal theme based on "The Changing Face of America." This
grant gave Berner the same freedom to roam, though in a shorter period of
time. Berner's theme, written for the 53rd Pictures of the Year entry in
the Canon Photo Essayist competition, was "The American West in the
Nineties. In the spirit of Arthur Rothstein, this essay returns to the
themes and to or near places he photographed for his book "The American
West in the Thirties" to show changes brought about by a half-century"
(Berner, A., personal communication, 1996). Berner's photographs were
created over a much shorter period than Rothstein's. Berner's Pictures of
the Year entry contained 40 images. Pacific Magazine (Dec. 8, 1996) ran 10
images, and the April 1997 issue of Life ran nine.
Rothstein's book was printed in 1981, allowing the photographic work to
sit, accumulate comment, and even "re-present" itself in the context of how
America had changed since the Depression (Brennen and Hardt, 1999, p. 7).
To counter this, Rothstein says, "a photograph means the same thing all
over the world and no translator is required. Photography is truly a
universal language, transcending all boundaries of race, politics and
nationality" (Rothstein, 1981, preface). Despite being a universal
language, the photographs still have different interpretations depending on
the viewers' characteristics, especially when his photographs have helped
to contribute to his own American nationality. "Just as (photographs)
reflect topics and perspectives related to the cultural and social
conditions of specific historical periods and to the particular interests
of their authors, their readings and interpretations reflect the
experiences and particular interests of their viewers" (Berlier in Brennen
and Hardt, 1999, p. 208).
The cover of the Rothstein book shows a sunlit downtown scene, "Main
Street, Eureka, Nevada, 1940" (figure 1). Cover photographs carry
different demands than those placed on the inside pages because of their
need to communicate the larger theme of the entire work and grab immediate
attention on the bookshelf, whereas the interior photographs can develop
the theme through narrower views. A less cropped version of Eureka is used
on page 100 (figure 2). Despite the buildings and vehicles, it is still an
empty photograph, devoid of any life. There are no people, Main Street is
as spacious as the sky, and the hill overlooking town on the right is
equally lifeless. It makes you wonder where everyone is. The long shadows,
including the darkness at the bottom of the frame, present an ominous tone,
adding a comment about how the town itself is sinking into the darkness.
The hard, angular sunlight casts a depressing glare on the full front of
the buildings. If Rothstein is facing north, the viewer gets the feeling
that this is a late afternoon sun baking the unprotected buildings. It
could be winter, but the only object with real roots is an apparently
lifeless tree of limbs at the front of the two dirty vehicles on the right.
Not only is the sun inescapable, but so is the dirt. Judging by the cover
photograph, a running theme throughout the work is the idea of the "Dirty
Thirties," where dirt, dryness, remote and rural are central themes and
aspects of life on the previously conquered frontier.
The first image inside the book is a mythic photograph and one of
Rothstein's most famous, "Bleached skull of a steer on the dry, sunbaked
earth of the Bad Lands, South Dakota, 1936" (figure 3). This version of the
photographed skull again carries the lifelessness theme of the Depression.
The concept of death, dirt and dryness can not be communicated any more
straightforward than in this version of the skull series. The sunlight can
be read just as it was for the cover photograph unrelenting and obviously
"bleaching." A skull is a frontier item that can be associated with the
toughness and isolationist of the cowboy West, where the cracked dirt can
seem as endless as the clear sky, neither providing relief from the heat.
What killed this animal? It could have been the drought or just a
by-product of the cattle and beef industry. The skull is separate from the
rest of the bones, but this is because Rothstein was experimenting with
composition and light, using the skull as a model on the dirt. Later use of
this photograph outside of this artistic context raised some controversy
about the overtly propagandist goals of the FSA. The use of the photograph
in a newspaper was outside of Rothstein's control and outside the intended
context. But it is interesting to note he uses this version as the second
photograph in his book a version that shows no hope.
Later, on page 60 (figure 4), is another skull photo from the same year and
in the same state, "Homestead on submarginal land, Pennington County, South
Dakota, 1936." This could be the same skull. The theme is the same, only
more of the surrounding terrain is available for context. The land is
described as submarginal, which places importance on the addition of the
landscape. The death theme is not as obviously stated as in figure 3, but
more of the arena in which this death took place is explained. The time of
day is different between the two, and the appearance of horses on the
opposite side of the fence shows signs of life (figure 4). Upon close
inspection of figure 3, however, there are hoof imprints across the upper
right of the frame alluding to life as well. These hoof prints allow new
thoughts for the viewer to contemplate. The prints have been cut into the
hard dirt; they are not stamped into dampness, which means life has walked
nearby since the last rain. Figure 5 shows the pairing of the second skull
photograph on page 60 with that of "Corn withered by drought and chewed by
grasshoppers, Terry, Montana, 1939" on page 61. There should be a
similarity drawn between the cornstalk photograph on page 61 and the
original skull photograph (figure 3) that is paired with the title page.
This lone, underdeveloped corn stalk is about to go the way of the cow that
became the skull. Instead of cracked dirt as a background, blown dirt has
drifted and filled in most detail. Who knows how close the nearest stalk is
to this one because of the purposeful cropping, which reinforces the intent
to communicate as clearly possible the lonesome and dire circumstances
being encountered. Each one of these photographs shows a lonesome, isolated
view of the Depression where only those with the correct frontier
characteristics are able to survive.
An overview of the book shows a theme to the organization of the
photographs. After one page of supporting text divided by the headlines
"The Photographs" and "The Photographer," page one begins with "Cowhand,
William Tonn Ranch, Custer County, Montana, 1939" (figure 6). It is not
paired with anything but a blank page on the left. This lone cowboy is
followed by photographs of sweeping landscapes that add a geographical
context to the cowboys and ranch hands working cattle in the foregrounds in
about nine photographs. Cowboys and cattle are shown in context with
several landscapes of eroding scrubland, seemingly endless rolls of high
plains graze land, and pasture surrounded by tree covered hills and
mountains. The photographs vary from the photographer's reaction to the
complex beauty of the location, exploring the size and scale of man and
beast as compared to the space of the West, to simply capturing the action
and processes of cattlemen working through normal routines. These are not
far removed from the idyllic Western cattle drives of the cowtown era.
From here Rothstein moves onto another lonesome cowboy on a horse to three
photographs relating to hay. One alludes to the industrious thinking of
those who had to make good on their own. It is a photograph of record of a
hay stacker. The other two photographs show resting and working with hay on
the same ranch. In the background are snow-covered mountains. Four
photographs depict mess hall and dinnertime. This moves the viewer to three
images of cowboys, two show saddles and tack. All three use the gear of the
cowboy as central to the theme of the West. The photographs progress to
animals on the farm, to sheepherder, to wheat harvest and plows, to farm
structures and the farmers themselves first the men, some children and
then two wives. Marking the end of the farm families are the second skull
and the cornstalk. A dead longhorn and a dead horse follows. If this book
were divided into chapters, these two dead animal photographs would single
the end of the farming story and the beginning of logging and mining and
structures of the West both manmade buildings and nature's wonders, a
jolting collection of lively photographs of Las Vegas, an auction and a
downtown. The overall feeling is not one of positiveness, especially with
punctuating the end of the agrarian photographs with those of death. Much
like the cover photograph, Rothstein's building mugs and downtown
photographs give the viewer a sense that the society is vulnerable, that
there are much larger forces at work against the re-conquering of the
Depression frontier. Not only is nature working against the inhabitants,
but the feeling of economic despair is prevalent. Looking at this work in
the context of 2003, it is difficult to imagine derelict buildings in the
new West already existing by the time of Rothstein's visits. But he found
many examples, which alludes to the temporal ability for the inhabitants to
put down roots or to even make a living.
A return to page one reinforces the roaming nature of this time. Figure 6
shows the lone cowboy against the sky, cigarette in mouth, as a symbol of
the dime store novel heroes that have continued into mythic status from the
late-1800s. The cowboy is postured forward surrounded by the tools of his
work, looking into the distance (and into the rest of the book),
self-sufficient and able. As the third photograph encountered in the book,
a Western frontier is being projected following the story-lined idea of
myth. One could define the image as that of the proverbial Marlboro Man and
all of the cultural symbolism that is connected with this connotation, such
as the isolationist, one without roots, nomadic, tough and takes little
despair off of no one. This is the romanticized, mythic cowboy theme found
deeply entrenched in American culture.
There is no humor or whimsy in Rothstein's work except for the possibility
of one images that is studied later. A few photographs show a subject
smiling, one for the camera and another in reaction to someone else. Even
the subjects' humor is absent, representing the difficult era. There is no
attempt for humor in the building photographs, though he does unveil a
penchant for a few odd buildings. Downtrodden and empty are two main
themes. In many ways, the frontier myth continues in the toughness of the
people and the isolated places they live in. Order can be seen in the rows
of buildings in many of the downtown photographs, but the farms and ranches
show a struggle to tame the land and cope with nature. These are the people
bringing the frontier under control parcel by parcel, town by town. A
portion of the frontier myth is destroyed when he shows the viewer the
faces of those waging the battle. Romanticism is reduced when poor,
ill-fitting and hole-filled clothes drape on dirt-covered and haggard men
and women. To dispel the frontier myth, the non-glorious work has to be
presented without the fanfare of the romantic notions of scenery and
heroes. But Rothstein had to make photographs that would communicate
quickly, so sometimes relying on certain fundamental themes to help push
ideas was necessary. If people responded to images of cowboys, then these
were important images to create with the hope their interest would spread
to the rest of the work.
Rothstein's subject matter is as broad as the land he traveled. The
romantic cowboys in the great wide open are contrasted against the close
portraits of ragged dirt farmers. The main street photographs are equally
involving when one considers how much time can be spent studying the
details about the inhabitants. He is trying to be diverse in his subject
matter. After all, that was part of his job. But subscribing to the
frontier myth creates easily understandable images that will communicate
quickly with editors and audiences. These receivers understand the grammar
of the frontier. They have learned this underlying theme because it is
presented all around them in the cultural products of advertising, film,
books and products. The viewers did not set out to intentionally learn the
frontier myth. The myth has soaked into them from everything they come into
contact these photographs included.
Berner's Western works were inspired by Rothstein. However, Berner admits
from the beginning that his creation has a more light-hearted feel than
Rothstein's work (Berner, A., personal communication, late 1990s). This is
understandable considering the American West was not in as dire
circumstances in 1995 as compared to the 1930s. The Nikon Sabbatical gave
Berner several months to explore the West away from his duties as a staff
photographer for The Seattle Times. He was familiar with much of the
Northwest because he had lived in the region for 18 years at that time. The
work was originally published in the newspaper's magazine on December 8,
1996. The cover photograph for the story is an image that encompasses
freedom and expansion into nature through oddity (figure 7). The headline
appropriately states "The West. Pictures from a strange and ordinary land,"
while the caption reads "With an Olympian leap, a sheep bounds off to catch
up with colleagues queuing up in the distance after their release in summer
pasture in the high country near Leavenworth, Chelan County." It should be
noted that Berner's presentation supplies captions whereas Rothstein
supplied titles. The text adds personification to the animal and raises it
to heroic status with the "Olympian leap" and "colleagues." The use of
Olympian by this newspaper is also well played, bringing in connections to
Washington's capital city of Olympia, the Olympic Mountains in the Coastal
Range, and the range's highest peak, Mount Olympus, which shares a Greek
reference to Heaven. The newspaper audience of Seattle would be familiar
with these notions. The leaping sheep has a sense of whimsy and wonder,
which sets the tone for the style of work that is expected inside
considering the use of seemingly contrary terms "strange and ordinary" in
The lead photograph on the first spread, pages 24 and 25 (figure 8), is
clearly dominant and odd. The viewer is instantly inquisitive about why the
men in suits on a stage are turning their bodies to look at fireworks on a
fake mountain. There is nothing natural, including their poses, except the
sky. Everything pictured is man made, even the mountain. The caption drives
the absurdity home. "Investors and dignitaries watch the Mount Rainier
front faηade of the SuperMall erupt at the mall's grand opening in Auburn
in 1995." Such an event consisting of manufactured fakeness is apropos for
the opening a of mall. The photograph is made "matter-of-factly" with no
extreme measures taken by the photographer, much like the cover photograph.
Absurdity lies in the subject matter, which Berner probably researched,
with the idea of this new American West in mind. There appears to be no
conquering left of this portion of over-developed American frontier, unless
the argument can be made that a new mall is a frontier.
The images have all been printed with a black border, which is the area of
film outside the exposed frame. There are several reasons that can be made
to justify this technique. These photographs have not been cropped. They
are the original compositions as seen by Berner. This can be a source of
pride to photographers who see their images as perfect when exposed,
thereby avoiding post-production malignance through cropping. The black
borders can also be justified as a design element to help carry a theme.
This could be an attempt to mimic the rustic crudeness found in old West
photography, where the black borders were often shown without choice.
Rothstein's cover photograph (figure 1) depicted Eureka, Nevada, as a dry
land whose inhabitants fled indoors for escape. Berner's version of Eureka
nearly 50 years later shows life on lush land (figure 9). The caption
reads: "High-school seniors in Eureka in east-central Nevada flee an
approaching storm after having their graduation class portrait taken west
of town. Eureka, population 650, is along U.S. 50, known as the 'Loneliest
Road in America.'" This could be a lonely photograph considering Berner's
use of the geography in the image. But unlike Rothstein's version of
Eureka, this image shows happiness and the appearance of lively people who
have a future. The photograph is a celebration of life. The land will
become lonely again once the graduates leave, but the lush springtime
growth does not evoke the same ideas as the scrubland it will turn into by
summer and fall. The subjects' surrender to nature is cause for celebration
and gaiety, further diminishing the influence of the ominous spring clouds.
The style of the photograph is unlike any of Rothstein's work. Fifty years
of documentary photography's evolution has increased the visual literacy of
its practitioners. The cameras and technology have had an impact on
photography, too. The subjects are full of action and honest emotion.
Composition is broken into several areas. The horizon, unbroken by the
human form, is high in the frame. These people are still somehow contained
within the land; their time spent here has been directly influenced by the
geography. Why else would a class choose to have their memorable event
photographed in relation to the space provided by such a lonely area? The
eloquence of this particular composition enhances the feeling of
spontaneity with the left third of the frame containing the upper-half of a
joyfully fleeing young woman. The leading line of graduates brings the
viewer still further into the frame for more explanation and an enforcement
of the mood of the image. If the assumption is made that many graduates
will leave this small town of 650, the viewer is privy to the idea of
people experiencing a new inner-frontier, that of the expectant prospects
of entering the world as a changed person. In this photograph, the people
have changed, the season has changed, but the land is still big, and this
fact hasn't changed since the beginning of the frontier.
Frontier and popular culture come together in one of Berner's most
significant images showing the interdependence of film on the West and its
inhabitants. This cycle continues the myth and the need for escapism from
this myth via film (figure 10). "A cowboy takes a cigarette break during
'Batman Forever' outside a theater in Socorro in south-central New Mexico"
reads the caption. The cowboy is in the middle of a triangle of marquees,
not only enhancing and repeating the idea of "forever," but also encircling
him in the idea that this is the West, and this is how life will be
forever. The pace of life is slow. Change is slow. The concept of taking a
smoke break during the hero-based movie reflects the notion this man
doesn't really care about the movie, but going to the movies is just
something a person does here. And he'll do it again, and again, forever.
The last two images to be studied are opposite in styled appearances but
still convey the spirit of the West. These images were run as secondary
photographs on the third spread of Pacific Magazine. A man with a mushroom
cloud on his head looks down as he searches for trinitite, a mineral left
by the first atomic blast, at the Trinity Site in New Mexico (figure 11).
Berner's research into the marking of the 50th anniversary of the 1945
atomic blast brought him to this place, symbolizing an American weapons and
atomic frontier carried out in the space of the West. The definition of
quirky would not have presented itself to Rothstein in the context of
disaster coverage of the Depression and would not have been presented to
him through his desperate subjects. D.C. Moons, the man sporting the
mushroom hat, has the means to travel to the site. This helps to define the
type of person who would make this trek in memory of such a surreal scene
as a mushroom cloud growing out of the desert and all of the social and
physical ills that are connected to the practice of detonation. D.C. Moons
can be compared to the quirkiest character in Rothstein's book, "Rocky
Mountain George, 68-year-old prospector, Esmeralda County, Nevada, 1940"
(figure 12). The absence of humor in Rothstein's book makes this one
exception of it important to compare in context to Berner. Berner uses
oddity, quirkiness and humor throughout his western work. In the
photograph, Rocky Mountain George appears to be as out of place as D.C.
Moons. Both of these subjects' names fit with their characters. George
takes on the name of a great Western range. His clothes are an odd addition
to the man. A lapel coat paired with a vested sweater and button-down shirt
topped with a gentlemanly hat seems a bit finished for a man who appears to
be able to drop to the ground on his right knee in a moonscape of rocks to
search for riches. Maybe George does find something worth value often
enough to justify the clothes. His swagger, expression and general
placement in the frame allows some possible interpretation that this man
beholds a lighter sense of character, something that is mostly absent from
Rothstein's work. D.C. Moon's lightness of character is more overt, making
an odd statement that helped Seattle Times reporter Terry McDermott to ask
"what the hell is going on here?" in the accompanying text. McDermott draws
the distinction between the financial ability of those in the 1930s versus
the 1990s. When a society has basic needs taken care of like food, water,
health and wealth, the society becomes freer to express and expand
knowledge, recreate and develop. This allows D.C. Moons to walk around with
a mushroom cloud on his head. Berner places the cloud in the sky so the
viewer has to look twice to understand what is happening. Because the
object is a model of the sensational sight of a mushroom cloud, the viewer
does indeed take a closer look. This inspection reveals everyone in the
photograph is studying the ground, reinforcing the oddity and wonder of the
The last Berner photograph to study (figure 13) has many similarities in
the Rothstein sense of the frontier. The Monument Valley High School
football team is kicking off during a practice on their football field.
There is a literal division between the civilized and the frontier. The
frontier aspect of this sport supports the Western myth. These players are
warriors and heroes in a modern day game created because of the lack of
true frontiers. The green grass of the field, with its straight white
lines, keeps the field and its players organized and in order. This all
ends at the horizontal center of the frame, where the ordered, tamed West
gives way to Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, a location that
has been used to forward the frontier myth in epic proportions. The
photographic quality itself has Rothstein characteristics. The high,
unforgiving sun lights the sweeping scene combining both the small human
form and the mammoth proportions of the frontier, reinforcing our temporal
stay and our smallness in relation to the land. The print quality itself,
the two-dimensional rendition of the scene, has a Rothstein feel. Tonal
values don't vary far from the tone of dirt. Even the cloudless, unwavering
sky has been toned down, or burned, to a darker tone. This sky in some
manner of quality has direct aesthetic roots to Rothstein. This football
image could be placed into the Rothstein collection just as Rocky Mountain
George could be placed into the Berner collection because with these two
images, the photographers have made a connection to each other's styles.
McDermott wrote the accompanying text to Berner's piece after being shown
the photographs. He chose many Western and frontier ideas to write about.
He begins by saying America should be driven from East to West to
experience the true change of the land and contemplate what thoughts
frontiersmen might have had as they crossed the continent. This expresses
expansionism. He points out that "The West, of course, isn't just the land
or the expanse of it. It is the idea of it. The very thought that it exists
in all its empty splendor, waiting to be filled, has for much of American
life represented a denial of the end
. It's an escape hatch. It's a promise
of immortality, the notion that if things don't work out wherever we are,
we can always move out West" (1996, p.28). McDermott lays out the frontier
myth in prose fit for the frontier photographs of Berner. He concludes: "We
once thought the West was so grand, so heroic, the landscape would
automatically make heroes of those who strode it. No more. We have moved
from being heroes to being almost inconsequential. Don't ever forget, these
photographs warn, you're just a visitor. You're left with the overwhelming
impression that people don't belong out here. The land is too powerful" (p.
Conclusion: An adaptation of the frontier
The frontier myth still exists, although it is not the same frontier Lewis
and Clark explored or the one Teddy Roosevelt attempted to model. There is
still rugged country for Americans to encounter and isolated patches of
ground to purchase and inhabit. But today's frontier is not so obvious. The
expansion is in the development of what we already know. The West is a
collection of knowns, so in a sense, there are no more big surprises to
discover. But scenes from the West show how frontier mythic influence is
carried through on a football field in the desert, or the search for
minerals left by a bomb from a bygone scientific era, or the opening of a
mall in suburbia. These are all examples of Americans taking risks on their
terms and within their understanding of themselves. The safety valve is now
located in the ability for people to fill in the cracks instead of the
expanding West. Rothstein shows us the fight for the myth, the idyllic
dream of being successful in America. Neither photographer shows an example
of the mythic hero. In fact, Berner rejects the importance of hero in
"Batman Forever." Large heroes only live in the stories, while the heroes
of substance win in the battles over the inner frontier. These are the
people most photographed by Rothstein and Berner. They are living their
lives within their own rules. D.C. Moon is an individualist. The Monument
Valley football team is rugged. The mall owners who decided to kick off the
grand opening created a model of Mt. Rainier with fireworks. This is an
inventive quality. So is photographing your classmates in the lonely Nevada
countryside. The scene is invented because this is what you identify with.
Graduation perpetuates the promise of a new life. The myth has not changed
much, but it has been added onto to include definitions of people in
"The history of the Frontier did not 'give' Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan
the political scripts they followed. What they did what any user of
cultural mythology does was to selectively read and rewrite the myth
according to their own needs, desires, and political projects" (Slotkin,
1992, p. 658).
Rothstein's photographs create a myth for the people of today to
perpetuate. Viewers see how life was 50 or 60 years ago, and this becomes
their understanding of that life. A window into the 1930s consisting of 122
images becomes today's definition of what was. Berner's photographs might
inspire someone else decades down the road. Berner's new myth will take on
new connotations to apply to what already is. The New West slowly becomes
the Old West, constantly changing what is already known about the Old West.
The perception of historical knowledge is constantly redefined as events
find their context within our past. Berner redefines the West as an odd
place, where unique things happen in a strange locale. Rothstein and Berner
do not use every sense of history to create their work. They select only
what is becoming for their vision.
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