Steamboat Art Museum’s latest exhibit portrays a West of the past
“What prompted four individuals to leave a comfortable lifestyle to journey into the wild West and endanger themselves to take photographs?”
That is the question that intrigues Rod Hanna, curator of Steamboat Art Museum’s latest exhibit, “Portrayals of the American West.”
While we may never know the exact answer, we are left with photographs portraying a time period of significant change and upheaval captured by renowned Western photographers Edward Curtis, Roland Reed, A.G. and Augusta Wallihan, and L.A. Huffman.
The exhibit is a collection of their work at the turn of the century including digital prints from scans of original glass plates, photogravures, silver gelatin prints from glass plates, contact prints, unpublished prints and original signed prints.
“In this exhibit, you have the whole spectrum,” said Betse Grassby, executive director of the museum. “To our knowledge, it’s the first time these photographers have been exhibited together.”
What: “Portrayals of the American West”
When: Opens Friday, from 5-8 p.m., through April 2
Where: Steamboat Art Museum, 801 Lincoln Ave.
Thanks to a collaboration among several Northwest Colorado entities including the Tread of Pioneers Museum, the Museum of Northwest Colorado, the Jace Romick Gallery and private collectors, Steamboat Art Museum will host the images and memorabilia Dec. 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 being ushered onto reservations and in some parts, ranching life was changing dramatically.
“The thing that fascinates me is that they were all driven to document a world they saw changing,” said Grassby.
One of Edward Curtis’s more famous images, “The Vanishing Race,” depicts Native Americans on horseback riding away from the camera in a single file line.
“The lifestyle that the Native Americans led vanished,” explained Hanna. “These photographers all felt a need to document that before it totally disappeared.”
Often traveling through difficult terrain to get into inhospitable lands while carrying all of their gear, the photographers were committed to documenting a period in time that would soon vanish all together. Befriending tribes and earning trust, each photographer worked to establish relationships that they would then go on to capture through their work.
Hanna pointed out that while each photographer worked during the same time period, their styles and what they chose to capture varies greatly.
“I’m inspired by the different approaches that the photographers had,” Hanna said. “With Reed there is more of an artistic approach, while Curtis was interested not just in taking photos but also recording songs and native tongue — it was more of a documentation of the entire life experience. From a photographer’s standpoint, to see how they approached these and the different processes they used is fascinating.”
In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will host a series of lectures and events throughout the winter to provide opportunities to learn more about the photographers and their images and processes.
“When people come to see the exhibit, I want them to experience what the West was 100-plus years ago,” Grassby said. “One of the things that I find particularly interesting is to think about how these photographers were driven because the culture was changing. Isn’t that interesting to show in Steamboat now, as we too are on the cusp of a changing culture? Perhaps this will get us all to think about what is changing around us.”
Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for the Steamboat Pilot & Today. She can be reached through the editor.
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