The Visual Culture of the American West

Close your eyes and picture the American West. What do you see?

Is it an ochre-dappled landscape of canyons and cacti? Is it populated? If so, what sort of people does it contain? If not, what might that mean?

Americans have been imagining “the West” since before they were citizens of an independent United States, and long before much of that West ever came under their national domain. (“West” of where? Is this an implicitly Anglo/Eurocentric concept?)

The very definition of the region has shifted over time, never having been uniformly understood at any given moment. Its mythology is deeply interwoven with several of the most pivotal episodes in our history, and that mythology has been framed in explicitly visual ways since the beginning—whenever that was.

Scholars have tackled aspects of this salient fact, and yet we’re just beginning to explore its implications for a region that has historically contained some of the fastest-growing cities in the world. By 1990, 80% of all American Westerners were urban—as historian Carl Abbott noted, that’s the highest proportion of metropolitan-dwellers in the nation. What do these facts mean for the way you answered the initial question, above—the way that we have literally and figuratively pictured the West, and continue to do so? Does “the West” cease to exist beyond the northern or southern borders of the United States? If not, why and how has its image become so intertwined with that of the United States itself (provided you agree with that contention)? Was that a coincidence?

We’ll read about people, landscapes, and pictures; a variety of image reproduction methods; and the ways they’ve intersected with a range of themes that have come to be identified as Western. We’ll discuss photography, cinema, illustrated books, panoramas, posters, portraiture, and more. Join us! “Go West, young man [and woman]!”