Editors' pick

Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845-1924


Editorial Review

Great frame jobs of the Wild West

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 23, 2009

You'll recognize many of the names -- if not the faces -- in the National Portrait Gallery's "Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits of the American West, 1845-1924": Jesse James, Buffalo Bill, Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, Annie Oakley, Geronimo, Gen. Custer. It's a rogues' gallery of robbers, renegades, roughnecks and sharpshooters, along with a few of those tasked with keeping order in what is still affectionately known as the Wild, Wild West.

But there are also surprise appearances by San Francisco chocolatier Domingo Ghirardelli, Sierra Club founder John Muir, landscape painter Albert Bierstadt, temperance leader Carrie Nation, Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille and jeans monger Levi Strauss. They're all part of this sprawling economic, political, scientific and cultural history of the American West, told in thematic galleries labeled "Land," "Exploration," "Discord" and "Possibilities."

The open spaces of the West held beauty, wealth and secrets, not to mention the ability to spark the imagination, as witnessed by publicity pictures of cowboy actors Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Land may be only one chapter of the story, but the theme looms large in the background of almost every picture, sometimes literally.

It's the pictures of such Native Americans as Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and others -- often shot while in captivity, and in front of papier-mache backdrops meant to stand in for the homes they were displaced from -- that underscore the cost of our love affair with the land.