Sunday, March 08, 2015

Islands of the Blest by Bryan Schumaat and Ashley Davis

My review of Islands of the Blest by Bryan Schumaat and Ashley Davis (Silas Finch, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.


In 1893, the historian Frederick Turner Jackson presented his influential paper “The Significant of the Frontier in American History” at the World Fair in Chicago. In the paper, Jackson argued that the western frontier forced settlers and pioneers to shed old traditions and to adapt to the rugged landscape forging a new and unique American identity. Closely linked to the concept of Manifest Destiny, Jackson’s theory not only helped promoted the idea of American exceptionalism, but also occluded more complex narratives about the inhabitation and contested nature of the American West. Despite the efforts of historians over the years to debunk Turner’s theories, the myths he promoted continue to hold sway. Islands of the Blest by Bryan Schumaat and Ashley Davis gathers together a collection of archival photographs of the American West that consciously explores this mythic narrative. At the same time, it is a thoughtful examination of the malleable afterlife of photographs that can be resurrected to tell or retell stories that speak of the past and to the present.

Drawing on the holdings of the Library of Congress, Islands of the Blest presents a chronological montage of the American West from the 1870s to the 1940s. Expansive landscapes make way for images of railroads and solitary figures, and eventually bring us to crowded streets, a brightly lit marquee, and prairie homes. While there are occasionally narrative links between images, like the pairing of a fire scorched living room and a burned forest, the book eschews a direct narrative for a tour of the West’s history from its initial exploration by white settlers to its rapid settlement and eventual industrialization. There are no protagonists. Instead, we are cast as omniscient observers watching as time moves on, houses crumble, mines open the earth, and railroads cut through canyons.

While this kind of decontexutalized presentation is not new and has historical precedent, Islands of the Blest feels very contemporary. A cross between the work of Michael Lesy and Mike Mandel/Larry Sultan, Islands of the Blest stands out for its depth, focus, and careful edit. While many of the images are well-known and by some of the medium’s most famous practitioners, like W.H. Jackson and Dorthea Lange, others are lesser known or remain anonymous. Despite the numerous contributing photographers, the book does a remarkable job of maintaining its overall tone. Individual authorship of the images remains apparent, but does not feel out of place and flows naturally from one to the next.

In some sense, the book functions as a preamble to Schumaat’s first book, Grays the Mountain Sends, a similarly melancholic examination of the American West. I may be in the minority, but I actually think Islands of the Blest is a better and more unique book. Whereas Grays the Mountain Sends felt too beholden to its obvious contemporary influences, the historical distance afforded by these images lends an air of mystery that was not present in the earlier work. While the book feels closely tied to Schumaat’s earlier work, it is a joint effort between Schumaat and Ashley Davis, a historian pursuing a graduate degree in American history. Even though it is the work of an artist and historian, it is still very much an artist’s book. Captions and image information are provided in the back, but the images are divorced enough from their original context that they fit within the book and suggest new meanings. Oversized with a soft cloth cover, the images are all presented in a rough offset black-and-white, which lends the images a fragile, ghost-like quality.

It is worth noting that Islands of the Blest does not try to tell a revisionist story of the West. Native, Chinese, and African-Americans are absent. Given the overtly poetic nature of the book and Schumaat’s previous book, I do not think the book was intended to be a political one, nor was it meant to counter the still dominant myths of the American West. As we now know, the expansive Western landscapes encountered by white settlers were hardly untouched or empty, but had been inhabited for generations by Native-Americans and settlers from Mexico. Instead, the book acknowledges, employs, and plays with the mythic narrative of the West.

The book’s title has its roots in Greek mythology, and refers to islands where favored mortals or heroes, who have been reborn three times and deemed worthy each time, would be received and blessed by the gods in paradise. (The title also appears in a fantastic poem by Michael McGriff that opens the book.) On the one hand, the title reads as a romantic homage to the men and woman who appear in these images and an attempt to cast the western landscape as the paradisiacal isles, but I think it is the actual images themselves that are being reborn and blest. From their original function as documents to their life within an archive to their resurrection within this book, these photographs, like all photographs, have shifting, multiple meanings. Like the heroes of Greek mythology who risked rebirth three times to make it to the isles, photographs continually die, disappear, and reappear. In the end, we’re the gods who judge if they’re worthy of rebirth rather than allowing them to fade, vanish, or smolder in an archive. In Islands of the Blest, Schumaat and Davis have resurrected these images to retell a familiar story of the American West, but the book also tells us about these images and their continued importance. That is of course, if we keep them alive

Please note: This review originally appeared on photo-eye on March 5th, 2015. You can get the book here.