A photograph is a slippery and unstable idea — it never has only one meaning. In capturing the face of a loved one, it's a hedge against loss. As a document or a formal record, it's dependent on the political, economic and propagandist impulses of the photographer. It can provide evidence of what has been — if we understand the various institutions from which it emerges. The Nelson-Atkins' Time in the West is an exhibition in which smart artists and a smart curator understand the photograph's multiple theoretical frameworks.
Mark Klett, Byron Wolfe and Mark Ruwedel photograph the landscape of the American West to investigate its various histories — geological, social, economic, cultural and environmental — that commingle and shift over time. They also mine the rich vein of historical images by Timothy O'Sullivan (a Civil War and geological survey photographer) and the more famous Eadweard Muybridge, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams. Often by standing in the precise places that these earlier photographers stood, Klett, Wolfe and Ruwedel engage in an artistic dialogue that spans time and distance.
Klett was working for the Rephotographic Survey Project, which exactly duplicated 19th-century images, in 1980 when he took "Ellen Above the Green River: Where O'Sullivan Stood Over 100 Years Ago." Klett's Ellen is clearly a modern woman — that's obvious from her clothes. She stands on the same flat-topped boulder that O'Sullivan did, scanning the gorgeous panorama carved out by the river before her. Klett wrote on the photograph as if he were on an expedition and left the edges exposed, suggesting his affinity with O'Sullivan. That self-consciousness — Klett creates a collusion of knowledge between him and us — allows us to participate in history both past and present.
Klett is a trained geologist; his photographs evoke the textures of the American West — we feel the dry air almost as if we were standing there with him.
He also collaborated with Wolfe. Their "Four Views From Four Times and One Shoreline, Lake Tenaya, Yosemite National Park" is a pastiche of antique and contemporary images. Standing exactly where Muybridge, Adams and Weston stood, Klett and Wolfe essentially created a mural out of individual photographs. Sepia-toned and black-and-white images press against contemporary color ones; we move across images that unfold in a contiguous history with shifting meanings.
Ruwedel's photographs recover the look and feel of 19th-century photography but show the land reclaiming itself. In the series Westward the Course of Empire, Ruwedel documents the land healing itself from the rupture of railway lines and blasted-out mountains. In "Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #20," soft grass has grown over the rail lines that once bisected the country from the upper Midwest to the Pacific Ocean. The tracks have gone fuzzy and lush, but the land is still fractured and changed forever. Like his other pieces, "Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific #20" is a tender image in which the earth seems anthropomorphized — its skin is broken, and time's passage is written on its face.