The Steamboat Art Museum’s latest exhibit depicts a West of the past
“What drove four individuals to leave a comfortable lifestyle to travel to the Wild West and put themselves in harm’s way to take pictures?”
That’s the question that intrigues Rod Hanna, curator of the Steamboat Art Museum’s latest exhibition, “Portrayals of the American West.”
Although we may never know the exact answer, we are left with photographs depicting a time of significant change and upheaval captured by renowned Western photographers Edward Curtis, Roland Reed, AG and Augusta Wallihan, and LA Huffman.
The exhibition is a collection of their turn-of-the-century work, including digital prints from scans of original glass plates, photogravures, gelatin silver prints from glass plates, contact prints, unpublished prints and original signed prints.
“In this exhibit, you have the full spectrum,” said Betse Grassby, the museum’s executive director. “To our knowledge, this is the first time that these photographers have been exhibited together.”
Through a collaboration between several Northwest Colorado entities, including the Tread of Pioneers Museum, Museum of Northwest Colorado, Jace Romick Gallery, and private collectors, the Steamboat Art Museum will host the images and memorabilia from December 3 to April 2.
The exhibit captures the lifestyle changes that were occurring at the turn of the century in the late 1800s and early 1900s as Native Americans were introduced to reservations and in some areas ranching life changed drastically.
“What fascinates me is that they were all driven to document a world they saw changing,” Grassby said.
One of Edward Curtis’ most famous images, “The Vanishing Race”, depicts Native Americans riding away from the camera in a single file.
“The way of life that Native Americans led is gone,” Hanna explained. “These photographers all felt the need to document this before it totally disappeared.”
Often traveling through difficult terrain to enter inhospitable lands while wearing their full gear, the photographers set out to document a period in time that would soon disappear all together. Befriending tribes and gaining trust, each photographer worked to establish relationships that they would then capture through their work.
Hanna pointed out that even though each photographer was working during the same time frame, their styles and what they choose to capture vary widely.
“I’m inspired by the different approaches photographers take,” Hanna said. “With Reed there’s more of an artistic approach, while Curtis was interested not only in taking pictures but also in recording songs and native language – it was more of a documentation of the whole experience of life. From a photographer’s perspective, seeing how they approached them and the different processes they used is fascinating.
Alongside the exhibition, the museum will host a series of talks and events throughout the winter to provide opportunities to learn more about photographers, their images, and their processes.
“When people come to see the exhibit, I want them to experience what the West was like over 100 years ago,” Grassby said. “One of the things I find particularly interesting is thinking about how these photographers were motivated because the culture was changing. Isn’t it interesting to show in Steamboat now, when we too are at the dawn of a changing culture? Perhaps this will get us all thinking about what is changing around us.
Sophie Dingle is a writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today. It can be reached via the editor.