“Without photography, our understanding of these inherently visual spaces would be limited to descriptive words and artists’ renderings,” writes curator Jamie M. Allen. “From its inception, photography has often been understood as truth, or pure documentation of the world. Through images of the national parks, photography can concurrently be understood as a filter that encourages our passion for these spaces and perpetuates their iconic status.”
Even in the 19th century, photographs were more propaganda than truth, conveying an idealistic vision of these “untouched” lands. Eadweard Muybridge, for instance, added perfectly whispy clouds to his wet-collodion images. And notably, these landscapes were usually completely void of people, suggesting another West to be won and protected. If a person does appear, they are a tiny specter dwarfed by the grandeur of nature, and they are certainly not indigenous. There are plenty of ladies in full skirts strolling with parasols among the burbling springs of Yellowstone or the mountains of Yosemite, but no images of the tribes that had inhabited many of these regions for centuries.