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Show Captures How the West Was Photographed

Gun-slinging cowboys, wagon trains, savage natives and loose women. Those images cover a good deal of our common impressions about the early days of America’s frontier. They’re also part of a new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery — but there is much more to the story about a fabled time and place in American history.

“Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924— is a collection of 115 portraits that tell the story of the exploration and development of the Wild West through the eyes of the people who shaped it.

“The West is an extraordinary and dynamic crossroads of people of all backgrounds and interests,— said Frank Goodyear, curator of the show.

Organized into four themes — land, exploration, discord and possibilities — the show addresses particular problems and successes in each one. In the land portion, walls are dedicated to Mexican War figures, scientists and artists who wrote about the new territories. Portraits of prominent voices in the slave debate, including Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist John Brown, along with some who were proponents of extending slavery to the new region, give some insight into that volatile question.

Others portrayed include the dapperly dressed Samuel Houston, the first president of the Republic of Texas, who was removed from office when he refused to sign an oath to the Confederacy.

Interestingly, a photo of railroad workers celebrating at the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, which completed the first transcontinental railroad, does not include any Chinese laborers, even though they were heavily involved in building the two lines. The presence of the Chinese in the American West is largely missing from the exhibit, something Goodyear attributed to a lack of records and photographs of the group. The sole picture representing the Chinese is that of a young Chinese servant. Goodyear noted that there were significant numbers of Asian immigrants living in different Western regions, but there is less documentation of them than more popular themes from the period.

Characters who are not exactly household names also make an appearance, such as Joseph Glidden, the inventor of barbed wire. While that might not seem a tremendous achievement to some people, Goodyear noted that it was an extremely significant event for ranchers in the West.

The exploration section focuses on scientists and land surveillance, and it includes portraits of field parties sent to study and document the uncharted terrain.

Not surprisingly, conflicts between Native American tribes and the new settlers are given heavy play in the exhibit. Well-known historical figures such as George Armstrong Custer and Geronimo are featured, but one of the most interesting portraits in the series is that of the lesser-known Olive Oatman. Captured by Apache fighters, Oatman and her sister were sold to a Mohave family, with whom they lived for five years. Oatman bears the markings of her time with the Mohave in the photograph: Her chin is tattooed in the traditional style of that tribe.

Religious conflict is also represented, with depictions of Brigham Young and murdered Catholic priest Jean Baptiste Lamy. Young’s 19th wife, Ann Eliza, also makes an appearance for her notorious divorce from her husband and her campaign against the Mormon religion.

Though the exhibit does broaden the scope of the frontier from gunslingers and Indians, Hollywood also gets a nod. In one series of portraits, Hollywood legends Cecil B. DeMille and Gloria Swanson are shown, as they represent the film industry’s move from the East Coast to California.

A range of other colorful characters appear as well. Chocolate scion Domingo Ghirardelli and denim legend Levi Strauss contributed much to the development of industry in the West.

Everyone’s favorite outlaws get their moment, including bad boys Jesse James and Wild Bill Hickok, as well as female troublemakers Calamity Jane and Laura Bullion.

In addition, writers Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, and Jack London are also mentioned for their work.

Eighty percent of the pieces included were culled from the National Portrait Gallery’s own holdings, and the rest were taken from other Smithsonian museums or borrowed from outside sources. Goodyear said this is the first time any Smithsonian has put together an in-depth look at the American frontier. Considering the venue, it is fitting that “Faces of the Frontier— showcases not only the development of the Western United States, but also the progression of photographic techniques.

Many of the early photographs in the exhibit are daguerreotypes, images on silver-plated sheets, which are kept in ornate cases likely to be kept with the owner or in a safe place in the home rather than hung on a wall. Later pieces are ambrotypes, which are glass-plated instead of silver. A 19th-century wet plate and camera lens are on display, giving some idea of the bulky equipment necessary for capturing landscapes and likenesses.

“Faces of the Frontier— is a comprehensive look at multiple facets of a period in American history that has much left to be explored.

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