- Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream ed. by John E. Carter
Solomon D. Butcher chronicled a critical moment in the settlement and transformation of the Great Plains with precision and imagination. Best known for his portraits of Nebraska pioneer families in front of their sod houses, taken in the late 1880s and 1890s, Butcher shared the history of his settler subjects (having come to Custer County, Nebraska, in two wagons with his family in 1882) and sought to create a new kind of collaborative photographic record in these pivotal decades. Despite repeated catastrophic losses of fortune and materials, he largely succeeded with the publication of The Pioneer History of Custer County, and Short Sketches of Early [End Page 227] Days in Nebraska in 1901, thanks to the patronage of wealthy neighbor Ephraim Finch.
This large-format paper edition reprints editor John Carter's preface and the photographs he selected for the original cloth edition published in 1985 by the University of Nebraska Press. New to the 2016 edition is Carter's afterword, which describes the circulation of Butcher's photographs through many venues and media, from the Museum of Modern Art exhibit curated by Edward Steichen (1949) to an episode of Ken Burns's PBS documentary The West (1996). Current viewers can now access Butcher's work online, notably through the Nebraska State Historical Society and the American Memory website created by the Library of Congress (2000). Carter reveals the new visual information and oral histories that emerged through the digitization process and argues persuasively for the revived relevance of Butcher's archive.
The 2016 version of Solomon D. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream continues to showcase the photographer's distinctive achievement, even if the critical apparatus lacks engagement with contemporary scholarship. The judiciously selected portraits remain striking for the evidence they provide of common opportunity, hardship, and hard work, as well as for the quirkiness and individuality of each family and structure on view. They mix worlds and degrees of documentary truth in striking ways, and because Carter chose to print full images rather than the cropped versions Butcher often preferred, viewers can now appraise the photographer's eye for arrangement, unabashed mechanical interventions, and astonishing juxtapositions: a family holding porcelain cups for tea while taking a break from baling hay on the M. C. Eckstrom ranch (1904) or the pump organ displayed in front of the livestock at the David Hilton homestead (1887). Important historical information is visible too, from the presence of freed slaves to conflicts between cowboys, ranchers, and homesteaders. Through the arrangement of Butcher's images and the strategic insertion of quotes from writers like Willa Cather and Wright Morris, the book communicates the energy and imaginative power of the homesteaders' dreams, as well as a historic transformation of the natural and built environment that couldn't be faked. [End Page 228]
Many readers will contest Carter's explanation for the appeal of Butcher's photographs (he states that "we would all like to be descended" from such "pioneer stock") and note the absence of Native Americans in Carter's history of Custer County; he provides no accounting of the county's name, for example, and insists throughout that the settler culture stands for a singular American experience. Readers seeking a scholarly history should consult the fine chapter on Butcher's photographic albums in Rachel Sailor's Meaningful Places (2014) and Martha Sandweiss's Print the Legend (2002). But readers and viewers seeking a rich and detailed visual record of the individual and collective process of settlement in central Nebraska will want to study, remember, and return to Butcher's photographs, so effectively displayed in this book.