In Conversation

Training an ‘Eye on the West’ with Beinecke curator George Miles

Miles, the William Robertson Coe Curator of Western Americana, discusses “Eye on the West,” a photography exhibition on view at the Beinecke through Dec. 16.
Miles George
George Miles

More than 20 years ago, George Miles, a curator at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, got a cold call from Joan Kerr, the picture editor at American Heritage Magazine.

Kerr informed Miles that a friend of hers, the photographer David Plowden ’55 B.A., was concerned about what would become of his photographic archive. She suggested that the Beinecke Library would be the perfect home for it. 

Miles, the William Robertson Coe Curator of Western Americana, says he had the good sense to conceal the fact that he had never heard of Plowden.

I asked Joan to tell me more,” Miles said.

After the conversation, Miles studied Plowden’s 1971 photo book, “The Hand of Man on America,” which documents the effects of industry and development on the nation’s landscape.

It converted me from collecting only 19th-century photography to collecting contemporary photography as well,” he said.

Eye on the West: Photography and the Contemporary West,a new building-wide exhibition at the Beinecke Library, features 158 images by 20 photographers, including Plowden, whose archives the library has acquired since that cold call. The exhibition, which also features a selection of photo books from the library’s collections, is on view through Dec. 16.

Miles spoke to YaleNews about the exhibition. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Contemporary photography is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of the Beinecke Library. What inspired this show?

This exhibition grew out of my conviction that for more than 150 years, photographers have been among the most important chroniclers, observers, and critics of the American West as a homeland for multiple divergent and diverse cultures, and as a stage for significant events in American social and political history.

The Yale Collection of Western Americana seeks to document the history of the trans-Mississippi West and the various peoples who live there. In my opinion, you cannot have a collection about the West without aggressively collecting photography. Photographers have worked in the West, and documented people, places, and events there, since the 1840s. Photography, in a sense, grew up in the West.

There is no master narrative to the exhibit. I’m not suggesting that this is a definitive statement about contemporary photography of the West. There are many important photographers of the American West who aren’t represented in this show. Rather, the exhibit is, I hope, an opportunity for people to become absorbed in the work on view and think about the ways in which photographs can inform us and possibly mislead us.

How did the show develop?

It took shape from my experience of looking at the photographs. I selected the 158 photographs on display after reviewing close to 8,500 photographs over the course of last winter. I winnowed it down to 800 and then 400. I talked to the conservators and preparators, who did an incredible job of humoring me and figuring out how to make the show work in the library’s exhibition space, which is challenging. We finally cut the selection down to 158 images.

I didn’t approach the photographs thinking that I wanted to find this or that. I knew some of the collection’s strengths. I spent the time looking closely and thought: This is a great photo that belongs in the show. I did that 158 times and thought about how to make a show out of the photos. To some degree, there is an arbitrary quality to my decisions. I would encourage viewers to question my choices.

I hope people think about what is on display but also what isn’t. One of the challenges of contemporary photography is how to do original work. How do you go to the same places where Ansel Adams or Edward Weston worked and make a photograph that doesn’t just seem like a poor imitation? The photographers represented in the exhibition have gone about answering that question that in different ways.

Does any characteristic bind these photographers as a group?

They are photographers who work in the West, but to call them western photographers might make them bridle a bit. Most of them have done significant work in many places across the United States and several have compiled extraordinary portfolios of work done abroad. They work within a documentary tradition that has been a feature of Western photography since the 19th century. They make photographs to share with others what they have seen, or perhaps more directly, what the world looks like to them. Their work is rooted in specificity, anchored in the concrete. Their images present us with opportunities to see people, places, or events outside our field of vision, to see something we have overlooked, or, perhaps, to see differently a scene we have viewed without comprehension. As artists, they do not copy the world; they create an intervention that stands between us and the world, an intervention that encourages us to see, feel, and think differently about the world as the result of seeing the image they have created.

It’s an interesting mix of people. Men and women are represented almost evenly. We strive to be diverse in terms of the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of the photographers we collect. There is work by Miguel Gandert, a Nuevo Mexicano from north of Santa Fe who teaches at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. There is work from Will Wilson, a Navajo photographer, and Harry Adams, an African American photojournalist from Los Angeles.

There is work from Yale alums, not only David Plowden, but also David Ottenstein ’82 B.A., who lives in New Haven. Marion Belanger ’90 MF.A, lives in Guilford, Conn.

One of the show’s themes is activism. A selection of photos documents the early stages of the farm workers movement in California. What is the background to those images?

The photographer, the late Jon Lewis, was just about to enter San Francisco State University in 1966 to pursue a master’s of fine arts degree. The summer before, he went to see what was happening with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the effort to organize the farm workers. He became so captivated by what was happening that he delayed his matriculation in the master’s program and he spent an entire year working for the National Farm Workers Association, which became the United Farm Workers union, helping to stage events and also taking photographs. We have his entire archive, which consists of several thousand images mostly from 1966 and 1967.

We have what is probably his most famous photograph on view, which shows Dolores Huerta holding a bullhorn. 

Labor leader Dolores Huerta speaks into a bullhorn in this 1965 photograph by Jon Lewis, who documented the rise of the farm worker’s movement in California.
Labor leader Dolores Huerta speaks into a bullhorn in this 1965 photograph by Jon Lewis, who documented the rise of the farm worker’s movement in California.

A photo he took of Cesar Chavez particularly intrigues me. I have a tendency to imagine that Chavez was always famous and successful. It’s easy to think that because he’s become such an icon of the civil rights movement, but when you study his personal history, you see that by 1966 he had endured 15 years of frustration. We have a photo of him from 1966 just before the march from Delano to Sacramento, which is the West Coast parallel to the civil rights march to Selma. When this photo is taken, Chavez doesn’t know whether the march is going to succeed. This is Chavez on the cusp of becoming the iconic figure we remember today. It’s fascinating what Jon was able to capture in that image.

Can you describe a photograph on view that you find especially compelling?

One of the photographs in the show that really grabbed me when I first saw it is a photograph by Marion Belanger of three swan hunters with their kills at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah. The image abounds with ironies and tensions. I’m not trained as an art critic, but the way the green of the hunters’ clothing pops and how the great whiteness of the swans contrasts with the grey sky and brown grass is very striking. At the same time, you have the hunters whose spirits are high after a great day and three swans who did not have a very good day. 

“Three Hunters with Swans,” taken by Marion Belanger in 2003 at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
“Three Hunters with Swans,” taken by Marion Belanger in 2003 at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, demonstrates tensions between preservation and land use in the West, says Miles. (Copyright Marion Belanger)

It turns out that this refuge is a very important location on the western flyway. It is a major resource for hundreds of species of migratory birds. While it is set aside, it is surrounded by lots of hunting clubs. It turns out that swans are not endangered. It is a highly regulated system, but those hunters had permits. It sets up the tension between preservation and use; between leaving the land alone or using it. This is a big issue in the West.   

I hope this show presents the tensions, as well as the achievements, in the West in a manner that makes people appreciate the region’s beautiful landscapes and remarkable various cultures, but also compels them to consider some of the conflicts that exist and the ongoing questions about our relationship to the landscape.

A portion of the show features portraiture. A few photos on display seem to show modern people in 19th-century photographs. What’s happening in those images?

Those portraits are by Will Wilson, who is a Navajo photographer. He has a project called the Critical Indigenous Photographic Exchange. He’s looking to push back against the ways in which the photographer and ethnographer Edward Curtis’ great portfolio of American Indian portraits and depictions from the 19th and early 20th centuries have come to dominate popular perceptions of Native Americans. In pursuing this project, Will has had some fun with technology.

He has adopted a 19th-century technology called the tintype, which is a wet plate collodion process in which you prepare your photograph plate minutes before you expose it. You have to take the photograph while the plate is still wet, so you’re mixing chemicals moments before you take the picture. Will has been asking indigenous peoples from around the country to sit for a tintype portrait. He gives the tintype to the subject, but before doing that, he scans it so that he can make inkjet prints. It’s a fascinating combination of 19th and 21st century technology that creates a look and a feel that really makes you pause. 

One of his portraits we have on display is of Kevin Gover, who is one of only two Native Americans to head the Bureau of American Indian Affairs and the only one in the 20th century. He is now the director of the National Museum of the American Indian. I look at that picture, and as someone who has studied 19th-century photography, I think: That’s weird. It’s a 21st-century person in a 19th-century photograph. It makes you consider whether you should rethink how you imagine the people you see in those 19th-century photographs. Maybe they’re not quite so quaint or quite so distant from us. At the same time, you might think: Is that what a Native American looks like today? It absolutely is.

How have you gone about building the contemporary photography collection?

The show represents a narrow segment of library’s extensive photography collections. The Western Americana Collection alone has more than 100,000 photographs that cover a very broad range both chronologically and of photographic techniques.  

My way of collecting contemporary photography has tended to be archival. Most museums will collect six to a dozen masterworks by a photographer and then want to collect as broadly as possible and try to build a comprehensive collection. We tend to go a different direction. Our collections are not comprehensive. I’ve invested heavily in 17 photographers and acquired hundreds — in some cases, thousands — of images by them. You can come to the library and dig in deeply to the work of particular photographers and conduct research that is comparable to how people work in our literary archives. 

Beinecke Library exhibitions are free and open to all, as are the associated events and the conference. Visit the library’s website for detailed information on hours and special events.

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