Monday, February 16, 2009

Week 7 Putting American Studies into Practice

Now that you have read other scholars' ideas about the frontier, now you get to start to reach your own conclusions.

This week, we're looking at photos of the west and paintings of the west. It might seem that photos are fact and paintings are fiction, but actually every image is framed in a way that reflects the artists' biased perspectives and that invites us to ask more questions.

So, as you look at the images this week, consider:

- What surprises you?

- Where are the issues of racial formation, gender-role formation, borderlands blending, environment and extractive industries, active federal government, and group-politics that we have been learning to think about?

- As a whole, do these images uphold Turner's frontier thesis or the revisions of that thesis that we have been reading in Limerick, Johnson, and this blog?

- Museum curators selected these images. What view of the west do you think the museum curators wanted you to take away?

Analyzing images might seem like easy reading this week, but it actually requires careful thinking. Here's an example: a photograph titled, "A member of Clarence King's geologic exploration of the 40th parallel," showing the man surveying Shoshone Canyon and Falls, Idaho territory, 1868.

At first glance, this looks like a triumphant lone white explorer, claiming land named after an apparently-vanished Indian tribe. The man is dwarfed by the landscape -- as Turner wrote he would be -- yet he is also perched atop an outcrop, claiming dominion, suggesting Turner's thesis that eventually, this man's encounter with wilderness will make him into a ruling American.

Yet he is not alone. There are three other tiny figures on the outcrop, looking almost like rocks themselves. The photographer is there, too, invisible but implied, and perched even higher than the exploring men. The photographer had to have carried dozens of pounds of cumbersome photographic equipment and chemicals to this outcrop. The explorer and photographer are both subsidized by the government. It only looks like an image of a lone white Turnerian explorer until you think about the structures of technology, governance, cooperation, and erasure that created this photo. What seemed Turnerian actually turns out not to be Turnerian.

It's even more interesting when you know, as historians do, that Clarence King the white explorer, also lived a double-life in which he pretended to be "James Todd," a black Pullman porter. King the scientist was white and a leading western explorer, but he seems to have preferred dark-skinned women (that was one reason he liked to be sent on scientific expeditions in places like Hawaii). In 1888, he got married in New York City to a former slave, Ada Copeland, and told her he was black. They had 5 children together, and he didn't reveal his true identity to his wife until he was on his deathbed, in 1901. His personal story is a particularly strange example of the kind of racial slippages that happened on America's many frontiers.

But you don't need to know that interesting historic backstory in order to do more visual analysis. Here's another example of visual analysis, this time of Elbridge Burbank's painting of "Ho-me-hep-no-my," a Tewa/Hopi Indian woman in 1904.

At first glance, this seems to contradict Turner's view of aggressive Indians who eventually vanished, as well as Turner's vision of a male-only frontier. This woman has a traditional haircut, somehow simultaneously bobbed and braided; she wears a blanket; and she looks unthreateningly to the side.

It seems a respectful image, except that it tells us more about Burbank the painter than Ho-me-hep-no-my. Burbank chose to pose Ho-me-hep-no-my like a mug-shot, all alone, outside of community or any identifying landscape. He chose to cut off her hands, suggesting helplessness. He chose to paint a relatively older woman, implying a dying race. This is an image of European superiority pretending to be respectful of Indians. This is actually an image that Turner might support.

Burbank chose to portray someone in relatively traditional clothes (not, say, jeans or overalls), yet the ribbons and cotton and colors she wears are European-influenced. Native dyes were rarely that bright red, and native clothing was rarely cotton. This is an image of borderlands blending, despite its intentions to portray a "pure" Indian.

Thus, both the photo and the painting can be viewed as supporting Turner and opposing him, depending on how much you think about the artist's choices and assumptions. There is much more for you all to discuss on this week's Blackboard discussion board.

This is another way for you to review what we have just read in the first six weeks of class. This is also a way of practicing the interdisciplinarity of American Studies: combining techniques from art history, ethnic history, and history. This is also all a warm-up for your second midterm, in which you get to select your own document of frontier culture and analyze it.

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