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American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 201-211
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Visualizing Stories of Time and Place
The University of Texas at Austin
Print the Legend: Photography and the American West. By Martha A. Sandweiss. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 416 pages. $39.95 (cloth).
River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. By Rebecca Solnit. New York: Viking, 2003. 305 pages. $25.95 (cloth).
Long before American living rooms became inundated by images of distant wars, their parlors brimmed with photographs of conflicts closer to home. The Modoc Indian War of 1872-73, a bloody confrontation that captured national attention when a small band of Modocs (numbering between fifty-five and seventy) held off more than one thousand United States Army troops for seven months, counted among the first to be photographed. 1 With war-related stereographs for sale from two leading San Francisco publishers and engraved reproductions of those photographs appearing in both Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Gilded Age audiences could hardly miss viewing scenes of California's "most spectacular Indian war."
The long exposure time and the inherent difficulty of preparing and developing wet-plate negatives onsite meant that neither of the war's two photographers—Louis Heller and the more famous Eadweard Muybridge—could document actual battle scenes. But they did produce an impressive range of images that show soldiers; army camps; [End Page 201] regional landscapes, including battlefield sites; Indian scouts who worked for the U.S. Army; and captured Modoc Indians after the conflict. Among the images produced by Muybridge is a stereograph of a Native man hiding behind one of the region's fabled lava-bed rubble heaps. Kneeling bare-chested with knife, ammunition case, and long hair in clear view, he aims a rifle at an unseen enemy. The photograph's title appears to confirm what viewers might suspect: here is a "Modoc Brave on the War Path" (fig. 1).
Yet all is not what it would seem to be. The attentive viewer might wonder about the meaning of the carefully placed military hat atop the rubble pile or the U.S. Army belt slung casually across the man's shoulder. The viewer might also recognize the subject from another photograph in Muybridge's series as one of several Warm Springs Indian scouts—definitely not a "Modoc Brave"—working on behalf of the United States military in its brutal campaign against the Modoc nation.
Muybridge's deceptive "Modoc Brave" photograph has recently been reproduced in slightly different formats in two quite different histories of photography in the American West. For Martha Sandweiss, in Print the Legend, it is the dissonance between visual image and printed word that is of greatest interest—that is, the way in which the stereograph's caption transforms a Native collaborator "into the enemy by literary sleight of hand" (243). Rebecca Solnit, in River of Shadows, visualizes this and other photographs in Muybridge's Modoc War series as an "act of witness" in the "journey to modernization," as an index of the "transformation of a world of presences into a world of images" (122-23). One sees in the stereograph evidence for the contingent nature of a photograph's meaning, while the other uses it as an illustration of our increasingly disembodied world. Both books tell intriguing stories about the nineteenth-century American West, stories that are at once complementary and at odds. Reading them in tandem offers insights into the role of photography in visualizing stories of that time and place, and of other geographies created at the intersection of imagination, visual technologies, social power, and the material conditions of everyday life.
That photography would play a vital role in shaping popular understandings of places like the American West was long predicted but slow [End Page 202] in coming to fruition. As early as 1858, William Lake Price, for one, believed that "photography has already added, and will increasingly tend to contribute, to the knowledge and happiness of mankind." By its seemingly magical ability to create detailed and realistic images directly from nature...