Cowboys, Migrants, and Signs at MoMA’s Into the Sunset exhibition

Chevron, Stephen Shore

Into the Sunset: Photography’s Image of the American West, on at MoMA through June 8, has been called an ‘unprecedented look at more than a century of changing myths and cultural attitudes about the American West, with over 120 photographs, from 1850 to the present, by photographers including Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Cindy Sherman, and Stephen Shore.’ At least, this is how MoMA describes it. The statement is more or less true, but it disguises the insidious fact that the exhibition is (as you might have wondered from the photographers listed) rather an odd agglomeration of images.

Untitled Film Still #43, Cindy Sherman

The curators wished to use the simultaneous exploration of the West and the development of photography to make a point. I find that it offers little illumination other than photographs have been taken of the West. The exhibition is organized thematically. After attending a lecture at MoMA yesterday, I can now inform you that that the exhibition is meant to take you through different facets of the mythic West such as landscape (unspoiled potential), people (seeking destiny, identified by trade such as cowboy or Indian, individuals), transportation (railroad, Manifest Destiny, highways signage). If anything, the exhibition suggests the plethora of ‘West’s we Americans cherish: rugged plains being settled and immigrants, cowboys and Indians, Yosemite natural park and Hollywood. There was an undertone of falsity and disillusionment with these ideals, especially in the latter part of the exhibition.

The exhibition might not suggest a unified concept of photography in the West and it might not impress upon you the development of photography itself, but it does prove to be an evocative experience. From Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in Dorthea Lange’s photos to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road Again in the highway and signage images of the 1950s and 60s, I was reminded of the lone individual going mobile to follow his manifest destiny under the enormous setting sun. However, like that last sentence, the exhibition never gelled into more than a pastiche of cliches.

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