Nineteenth-century photographs of the American West are iconic—celebrated documents of the United States’ western expansion. Nineteenth century photographs of the eastern United States are, well, not as famous.
The National Gallery of Art exhibition, East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography, aims to end eastern photography’s status as a poor sibling, labeling it a powerful source of myth-making for a nation just finding its identity. The exhibit includes 175 works from about 1840 to the turn of the 20th century, ranging from daguerreotypes to stereoscopes to some impressively understated tintypes.
Overall, it’s hard to argue that the eastern images on display stand the test of time the way so many western landscape photographs do; the exhibit includes many images that are both bland in subject matter and indifferently documented. Painting was still the powerhouse art form at the time, and much of the time, it shows. Still, the exhibit has unearthed a number of impressive individual images.
Consider an 1854 salted paper print by James Wallace Black—a surprisingly evocative, high-contrast lakescape ringed by an undulating ribbon of road. Or consider a Josiah Johnson Hawes photograph of snowy branches; though it was made in the 1850s, it presages the snow photographs of Harry Callahan about a century later.
A few Civil War-era images are particularly affecting for communicating an uneasy stillness, including Andrew J. Russell’s after-battle depiction of rebel rifle pits at Bull Run in 1863 and George N. Barnard’s documentation of Sherman’s march to the sea, photographed shortly after the war in 1866.
As the century neared a close, some compositions became more daring. In an 1891 image of Pittsburgh’s Union Station, William H. Rau produced a moody arrangement of mist, snaking rail lines, and a stationmaster standing ramrod straight in the foreground.
The undisputed stars of the show, however, are the works made using the cyanotype process—a technique that produces bold, blue prints. Two obscure photographers used the cyanotype to particularly impressive effect.
One, Frederick DeBourg Richards, produced a sharply horizontal seascape interrupted by trees. The other, Henry Peter Bosse, created a series of oval-shaped landscape and urban images that are stunning in color, design and subject.
Ultimately, the exhibit’s blue works hold up the best—not bad for images that come from the photographic cousin of the humble blueprint.
Through July 16 at the National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Ave. NW.