Take time to see the 48-star American flag on the wall behind the old cowboy in William Albert Allard's 1970 photo taken in Arizona.
Look at Chris Johns' 1991 photo from Arizona in which a cowboy and dog are in the cab of a pickup with only a barbed wire fence separating the cowboy and the sun-setting end of a 14-hour work day.
There are 75 photos from more than 50 photographers in “National Geographic's Greatest Photographs of the American West” exhibition. National Geographic magazine has a 125-year history.
While those figures are impressive, there's no way to quantify the stories these images have and will create for the visitors who absorb them.
Mike Leslie, assistant director at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, has not only studied the exhibit, but listened to some of the reactions since it opened in late October.
“I heard one gentleman say ‘Basically this has been our vacation for the last 30 years or so because I've been to here, to here and to here,'” Leslie said. “My daughter, who is a college student, knew immediately the photographer in a photo down here. She told me the photographer was Jimmy Chin and she told me about the climber who was standing there without ropes on a granite sliver at Yosemite's Half Dome.
“When you're talking about the West, I don't know of any other region in the United States that has had such a draw and such a dynamic kind of response by people, and so this is a fun exhibit. It has a little bit of everything.”
By everything, he may be referring to a range from P.G. Gates' 1911 photo of a Hopi snake priest to Walter Meayers Edwards' 1971 photo of motorcycles racing across the Mojave Desert near Barstow, Calif., to James L. Amos' image from 1890 taken at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I think because National Geographic is such a household name, people also are so readily open and just immediately respond to the photographs,” Leslie said. “National Geographic has such a tremendous reputation.”
The national exhibition opening was Oct. 27 at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., and at nine members of the Museums West consortium, including the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum and the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.
The exhibition is organized by the National Museum of Wildlife Art in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and Museums West, and it is presented by the Mays Family Foundation.
There is a companion book to the exhibit, “National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West: Capturing 125 Years of Majesty, Spirit and Adventure.” Produced by Rich Clarkson, former director of photography at National Geographic magazine, the book features 185 images. The forward is written by James McNutt, president and CEO of the National Museum of Wildlife Art of the United States, a key organizer for the exhibition.
“This volume and the exhibit that it accompanies give a small hint of the scope and significance of the National Geographic holdings,” McNutt said. “From that, it is only possible to guess at the impact of millions of such images disseminated through National Geographic magazine and other media.”
McNutt said that because of the vastness of the collection, the decision was made to present the exhibition through four aspects of the American West: “Legends,” “Encounters,” “Boundaries” and “Visions.”
The “Encounters” area of the exhibition includes “Clearing Winter Storm,” a powerful black-and-white photo by Ansel Adams taken in Yosemite Valley in the 1930s. And in “Boundaries” is a Jonathan S. Blair 1972 photo showing one of the “bear jams” as visitors to Yellowstone stop to look at and take pictures of a bear. This occurred despite warnings against approaching, crowding or feeding the bears.
The run of the exhibition will vary by location. However, it continues through Jan. 6 at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Leslie said.
“I think it's going to be an exhibit that's very appealing to a broad section of our visitors,” Leslie said. “It's been a very powerful show for us already.”
At a glance
‘National Geographic's Greatest Photographs of the American West'
The national exhibition currently includes the following museums:
• Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyo.
• Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis
• Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa
• National Cowboy and Western Heritage
• National Geographic Museum, Washington, D.C.
• National Museum of Wildlife Art of the United States, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
• Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, N.Y.
• C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, Mont.
• Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas