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Framing the Frontier

on display in the Firestone Library

Both the American West and photography came of age in the nineteenth century. The West had long captivated the American imagination, but U.S. expansion in the region did not commence in earnest until the 1840s. By then, vague notions of a unified American continent had taken an aggressive and nationalistic turn. Americans believed that providential necessity destined the United States to push its border west to the Pacific Ocean and settle the continent.

At the same time, American men of science were engaged in learning and improving the new medium of photography. It was first introduced on the East Coast of the United States in 1839; by the early 1840s, photographers were at work making views in the Trans-Mississippi West. Photography would become a crucial medium in shaping American conceptions of the region after 1860.

To be sure, early photographs of the American West document the history of a region, but they also demonstrate how Americans characterized their place and their future on this new frontier. Photographers active in the West were consciously aware of the narrative function of their work and endeavored to supply audiences with visual accounts that both informed and impressed. Their photographs offered a glimpse into the future of a nation.

The photographs on display here, by important and little-known American photographers, show how photography contributed to opening the West to American settlement and defining it in the American consciousness.