by Renny Pritikin
While taking in The Oakland Museum of California’s current photography show, Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell, I was reminded of Chris Burden’s masterpiece, Medusa’s Head, (1990). High on my list of greatest artworks I’ve ever seen, it is an enormous globe (14 feet in diameter) depicting an utterly despoiled planet — a nightmare vision of a landscape rapaciously destroyed by industrialists who have reduced the world to nothing but tunnels, rock and train tracks. Russell’s work from the 1860s is among the early artistic efforts to document the first manifestations of the social and ecological catastrophes that we have brought upon ourselves.
Russell (1829—1902) was hired by Union Pacific to document one of the most significant events in American history, the completion of the transcontinental railroad. His photograph of the two engines facing each other at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 (East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail) is akin to images of Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty in the assembling of an imperial American iconography. A small cabinet in the exhibition holds vintage kitsch reproductions of the photograph, on plates and such. When an image is seen thousands of times over our entire lives, we often stop seeing it or even fail to ever actually examine it closely. A generous gift of this exhibition is that that ubiquity is undercut in several ways. First, it shows the image digitally blown up to near-mural scale; because Russell used the large-format glass collodion technique, it is possible to do so without losing any crispness. We are the first people capable of looking into the eyes of those who were alive 150 years ago. We can see the nuances of how they wore their clothing, the tilt of their hats, and their facial expressions suggesting how pioneers felt about being out there in the middle of nowhere among the desert weeds in the foreground. One man doffs his hat to us across the chasm of years, a gesture that pierces my heart — though he may also have just been shielding his eyes from the sun as he posed for the camera.
When I see historical photographs I often wish I could see the image from 360 degrees, or five minutes before or after the picture was actually taken. This is the second way that the curators of Pushing West refresh this picture and accommodate my fantasy: They include other photographs taken minutes before or after the one with which we are familiar, and from different angles. Those images greatly enhance our understanding of the moment: There are at least two women in the crowd, for example, not seen in other versions.
The third way that this famous image is reinvigorated is by bringing in the observations of living Native peoples, who bring a dissenting voice to the celebratory goings-on that are depicted. This is a model curatorial approach for the thorny issue of how to present problematic historical material. Rather than suppress documentation of colonialism or assume an ahistorical stance, the museum actively sought out a diversity of reactions to the conquest of the West and the indigenous people whose lives were upended or destroyed by the expansion of the United States. Each photograph on the walls had a label offering the names of the Native American tribes who lived on the land depicted in it. This lends a powerful double or triple nature to the photographs on view: our hearts are engaged by the humanistic presence of Native and pioneer lives resuscitated from history, at the same time that we anticipate the industrialization of the pristine landscape seen and the ultimate destruction of the way of life of the American Indian.
Like the noted painter of the West, Albert Bierstadt, who was working at the same time, the challenge for Russell was how to demonstrate the vast scale of the landscape, so unimaginable for urban city dwellers in the East. His solution was to set his camera so that the natural scene
filled the frame, and only with careful attention would the viewer notice the minuscule presence of people or the built environment. For example, in Smith’s Rock, Green River Valley, notice how a group of men and women can be seen silhouetted in the upper right corner. Another example is Castle Rock, where he places a man in the river bend. In this print, Russell’s darkroom wagon and horse are there, hidden in the brush.
Russell’s assignment was intended to glorify and justify corporatization of the American wilderness, and the work no doubt accomplished that goal and satisfied the railroad tycoons. It is tempting to project a more progressive agenda onto the artist’s intentions, but I suspect that he was just such a good artist and the subject matter was so rich that he couldn’t help but speak to a 21st-century audience about the subtext available to an observant eye. Not only did the railroads bring industry, but these images also depict how an entire cultural consciousness was being imposed on both the people and the land. For example, the painful images of the Shoshone and other Native peoples depict families in transition; the men mostly wear Western- style clothing, while the women continue to wear traditional apparel. More telling, Russell clearly
used his titles to help sell his prints. An image of an anodyne line of Indians on horseback, calmly facing the camera, is titled Shoshone Braves in War Party. We can speculate that Russell may himself have realized what he was capturing for posterity.
Beyond this use of language to misrepresent reality, the photographs include other ways that European culture and values were brought West and proudly replicated. Early settlements of tents and wooden shacks aligned along the tracks look as out of place on the prairie as did our spacecraft on the moon exactly 100 years later. Streets, stores and flags jump out of the frame, as do guitars, the early signs of accommodation of tourism, and, four years after the Civil War, one black man seen on the right among a group described as railroad clerks.
I mentioned above my admiration for Russell’s aesthetic savvy. He was trained in photography as an officer during the Civil War, so his background was closer to that of a military historian than an artist; but he very clearly was aware of how to construct a photograph. At the entrance to the exhibition, one of his prints is blown up to approximately 15 feet square, and it is a
stunningly detailed trip back in time. The image is constructed in the classical triangle format: mesa in the upper left corner, the smoking locomotive to the right, and at the bottom, in the center, two men astride one of those archaic self-propelled train platforms. Nature, man and machine lay out like an essay.
Another image, of an unusual, narrowly conical small peak, shows a couple posed at its foot on a very steep rocky incline. How they got there is hard to imagine, but the shape of a woman’s voluminous skirt on up to her bonnet forms a perfect reiteration of the mountain towering above. Here, I was again reminded of Chris Burden by the extraordinary wooden trestle that bridges the railroad tracks, which Russell captured so aptly. (Burden himself went through a long period in which he built large-scale models of bridges.)
In these, and in the above-referenced Medusa’s Head, Burden, I believe, was arguing for a recognition of contradictory but equal truths: America is guilty of despoiling the continent it
occupied and destroying the lives and cultures of the people inconveniently in its way, but it also was capable of creating exquisite technological and design solutions along the way.
Finally, I want to mention an image that is perhaps the most powerful in the exhibition: Surveying under Difficulties, Head of Bear River. It is as pure a depiction of people struggling together to overcome natural obstacles as I’ve ever seen. As surveyors, the men pictured were, of course, preparing the way for “progress,” but the depiction of the human body up against nature is unforgettable and perhaps a timeless way to appreciate this early photo artist’s transcendent contribution.
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“Pushing West: The Photography of Andrew J. Russell” @ Oakland Museum of California through September 1, 2019.
About the author:
Renny Pritikin retired in December 2018 after almost five years as the chief curator at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Prior to that, he was the director of the Richard Nelson Gallery at UC Davis and the founding chief curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts beginning in 1992. For 11 years he was also a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he taught in the graduate program in Curatorial Practice. Pritikin has given lecture tours in museums in Japan as a guest of the State Department, and in New Zealand as a Fulbright Scholar, and visited Israel as a Koret Israel Prize winner. He is working on a memoir of his experiences in the arts from 1979 to 2018.