By M. J. Van Deventer
A recent photography exhibit at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum was so exquisitely presented viewers felt like they were taking a virtual tour of the great American West.
Breathtaking views revealed the natural beauty of parks, mountains, forests and scenic rivers, as well as awesome views of nature at her best, and worst, and cultural events that celebrate the traditions of the country’s first people – its Native Americans.
To stand before these unusual and spectacular photos was to experience 125 years of pictorial story-telling through 175 iconic and rare photographs that could rightfully be labeled works of art.
Initially organized by the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in conjunction with the National Geographic Society and the Museums West organization, the exhibit included a vast array of powerful and thought-provoking images from the National Geographic Image Collection. The show opened October 27 at 10 venues around the country, including Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum.
James McNutt, president of the Jackson Hole museum, said, “The show represents the first time a photography exhibition of this magnitude has opened at so many U S. venues simultaneously.”
National Geographic magazine has long been the standard bearer for the best photography in the world. In its pages, the magazine has taken people around the world and behind the scenes to tell – through the mediums of photography and words – amazing stories of unusual people, exotic places and historic changes. This exhibit expressed the melting pot culture that continues to shape the character of the American West.
Looking through the lens of the numerous photographers whose work was featured in the exhibition, viewers were transported from photographs produced by the cumbersome and time-consuming equipment used at the turn of the 19th century to the lightning speed Technicolor images of today’s digital cameras, which produce more special effects than early day photographers could have imagined.
No doubt, Edward S. Curtis and William Henry Jackson, pioneer photographers whose work was included in the exhibit, would marvel at today’s instant photo processes.
The journey through this exhibit was spellbinding. Every Western state was represented in some way, including vintage photos of Oklahoma’s historic land run. The photos dramatically revealed the hardships of the pioneers who settled the West as well as those later transplants and contemporary ranchers, cowboys and entrepreneurs who contribute to the growth, beauty and charm of this fabulous region of the country.
Combined, the photographs traced the fascinating history of the West through spectacular landscapes, wildlife, fashion, rural and city life, agriculture, social and cultural events, technology and disasters wrought by the mercurial and unmerciful nature of weather.
To its credit, the exhibition’s broad appeal drew high praise not only from professional photographers but those who had never held a camera in their hands.
Joe Ownbey, a Dallas photographer who has chronicled National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum events for more than 20 years, said, “As a working photographer since 1976, I tend to unconsciously evaluate photographs by their artistic and technical merits, based on my own criteria.
“However, whenever I see historical photos such as many of the amazing images in this incredible exhibit, I am drawn more to the fact that, without this collection of photography, none of us would ever be able to look into the faces of actual working cowboys in Montana, Oregon, Texas and Wyoming, in tintypes processed as they were more than a century ago, or appreciate the nostalgic impact of modern wranglers and broncs in Nevada.”
Ownbey, who conducted a two-day digital camera workshop in conjunction with the exhibition, said, “The striking Indian portraits from the early and late 1900s challenged me to give critical attention to the images I attempt of my subjects.”
He added, “Likewise, the colors and contrast of rugged American landscapes in Arizona, Wyoming and Texas filled me with a reverent appreciation that the American West has significantly shaped all of our lives. It would benefit every person in the country to stand before an exhibit like this one often, so that we have the opportunity to connect with what we have evolved from.
“In my mind, dedicated photographers look at the world a little differently than other people, partly because we seriously want to capture a moment of time in a way that it might cause viewers in future years to stop and examine what existed for a second – and that is, forever after, a visual memory preserved for future generations to see through a photographer’s eye, to then interpret and to cherish.”
This kaleidoscopic view of America’s West did not disappoint its viewers. Although the exhibit closed at each venue January 6, the images live on in the memory of the thousands of people who viewed these photographs across the country and through the pages of a companion book titled National Geographic Greatest Photography of the American West: Capturing 125 Years of Majesty, Spirit and Adventure.”
The endless skies, boundless plains and dramatic mountains featured in many of these photographs were destined to leave an indelible memory of the American West in the viewers’ minds.
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