Exclusive Preview: National Geographic's Greatest Photographs of the American West

The curatorial team at the National Museum of Wildife Art has spent the past two years reviewing thousands of images, which comprise 125 years of National Geographic photographers at work, in order to create the exhibit National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West. In a unique move, the collection of 75 prints will be displayed simultaneously in 10 museums. The Greatest Photographs of the American West showcase will debut on October 27, 2012 in 10 different museums across the United States, including the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A new book of photography, National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West: Capturing 125 Years of Majesty, Spirit, and Adventure, acts as a companion guide to the exhibit. It includes even more images, some never before published, that explore the Western region's unique place in our national history and its reflection of the American spirit. National Museum of Wildlife Art president and CEO James McNutt talks to Field & Stream's Kristyn Brady about the photographs, the book, and the museum's role in creating the largest photography exhibition ever to open in multiple locations simultaneously.
Monument Valley, Utah, 2001
Photographer: Bruce Dale
In Monument Valley--the area the Navajos called "Valley of the Rocks"--monolithic sandstone sculptures carved by thousands of years of erosion stand out against the otherwise barren landscape near the Arizona-Utah state line. This two-foot-high rock window looks out onto a skyline of iconic formations known by names like Stagecoach, Bear, Rabbit, Castle Rock, Mitten, and Merrick. For me, the American West conjures images of wide open spaces, Wrangler jeans, covered wagons, and my first opportunity to stand and behold the Rocky Mountains beyond a pen of agitated Wyoming cattle. In that moment, something stirred inside me while confronted by a landscape so indomitable, dwarfing, and gorgeous. I think about it every time I interview our photographers, who are regularly in the midst of these wild landscapes and animals. And while video can go a long way toward actually simulating that experience for us, I believe there is a deeper power locked in the single-moment-perspective of the still photograph. You stand back and examine it, say in a museum gallery--the longer you look, the more boundless the story becomes. The curatorial team at the National Museum of Wildlife Art has spent the past two years reviewing thousands of images, which comprise 125 years of National Geographic photographers at work, in order to create the exhibit National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West. In a unique move, the collection of 75 prints will be displayed simultaneously in 10 museums across the country, an idea that museum president and CEO James McNutt has been kicking around for quite some time. Click forward as he tells his story... --KB
Wyoming, 2008
Photographer: Michael Melford

_Yellowstone National Park's Great Fountain Geyser usually takes a backseat to its more famous neighbor, Old Faithful, but it is the only geyser in the park's lower basin with a regular show time, spraying up to 200 feet every 9 to 15 hours. The area surrounding Wyoming's Firehole Lake Drive boasts more geysers and hot springs than any other place on Earth.
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"I first mentioned the idea for a simultaneous opening over lunch with Rich Clarkson, a former National Geographic photo editor and leader of the Fall Photography at the Summit workshop series held here at the museum. That was five years ago," McNutt says. "Rich was familiar with National Geographic's organization and this subject matter was so appropriate to our museum, which is devoted to getting people to think about man's relationship with nature. So, we proposed the exhibit to Chris Johns, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic, and eventually we were fortunate enough to receive a grant from the Mays Family Foundation in San Antonio. Once we had funding, people really started to sit up and listen, and the hard work could begin." "Then we worked from the National Geographic archive of 2 million images. You know, everything post-1965 has been digitized, but everything before that is on hard copy file in their basement--and there's just one guy who knows where everything is!"
South Dakota, 1938
Photographer: Charles D'Emery

Mount Rushmore designer and sculptor Gutzon Borglum commissioned Connecticut-based photographer Charles d'Emery to chronicle the process of creating this monument. Nearly 400 men and women worked on the granite portraits of the American presidents throughout the Great Depression. According to the National Park Service, laborers had to endure conditions ranging from blazing heat to bitter cold, climbing 700 stairs to the top of the mountain each day just to punch the clock. Despite dangerous conditions and heavy use of explosives, no fatalities ever occurred during the 14 years Mount Rushmore was under construction.
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_"_We weren't looking to create a chronological or state-by-state history of the West, and the collection should be subject to interpretation. Photography has a long-lasting cultural impact on people, and you see a consistent return to the West as an influence. It's a resource. We wanted to reflect that.
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Wyoming, 1988
Photographer: Michael S. Quinton

_The elk and other wildlife of Yellowstone National Park spent months shrouded in a fiery red and orange haze in the summer of 1988, when the park's largest wildfire in recorded history blazed. The flames demanded the attention of some 25,000 firefighters and spanned approximately 1.2 million acres of America's first national park. The fire also caused the first ever park-wide closure in September 1988. Despite the widespread devastation, only 345 of more than 50,000 elk were killed.
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"It's amazing to think about what National Geographic has done over a long period of time. Today you'd search Google, but there was a time when you'd immediately think of National Geographic as the go-to resource if you wanted to see elk, moose, or Old Faithful in pictures."
Nebraska, 2004
Photographer: Jim Richardson

_This view of the prairie in the Nebraska Sand Hills pays tribute to the extreme weather conditions and untamed nature of the West. When asked about his work, photographer Jim Richardson says, "For folks on the plains and grasslands, weather is an everyday partner. It's not a sometimes thing--it's a constant thing. They work with it, around it, and respect it." _"Eight of the 13 institutions in the Museums West consortium joined ours on this initiative, and the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C., brought the venue count up to 10. The point of doing it this way, with a simultaneous opening, is that everyone will see the same show--like the nationwide release of a movie. We can't control the space that each museum has, but the images will be displayed in the same order and follow a carefully prepared flow. It's not a narrative, but it is organized, and the captions are limited, because we are not preaching about how the viewer should feel about these images."
Slot Canyon, Arizona, 2007
Photographer: Frans Lanting

_As the most-photographed slot canyon in the American Southwest, Antelope Canyon has been relatively unseen by the general public since 1997, when it was made accessible only with a permit. Located just outside of Page, Ariz., in Navajo country, this sandstone marvel shaped by flash floods can be difficult to capture on camera. Light reflects off the rock walls and creates a wide exposure range.
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"As we narrowed down our selections and began collaborating on the companion guide book, contrasts started to emerge. We translated the dichotomies we saw into broad terms, like Legends, Encounters, and Visions. That determined the flow of the exhibit and the chapters of the book."
Wyoming, 1999
Photographer: Norbert Rosing

The American Bison remains a symbol of resilience in the West, with Yellowstone National Park being the only place in the lower 48 states where the nomadic grazers have existed since the prehistoric era. During the harsh winters, the park's population of 3,000 bison seeks refuge from the cold by gathering around thermal influenced areas and geyser basins. The water spouting from these so-called geological smoking guns can reach up to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. "Some of these images are well-known, and some have never been seen before. The oldest photograph in the show is William Henry Jackson's image of the Mount of the Holy Cross, taken in 1873. It was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia a few years later and was one of the most circulated images of the last century. It's iconic."
American Indian Beauty Pageant Winner, Oregon, 1997
Photographer: William Albert Allard

Acosia Red Elk waits for the start of a parade through the tepee village, a part of the Pendleton Round-Up since 1910. The festival, which draws crowds of 50,000 or more visitors from all over the United States, occurs every September in Oregon, with events ranging from rodeos to a cowboy breakfast to a tribal ceremonial dancing contest. Photographer William Albert Allard, who began his nearly 50 years of work with National Geographic as an intern, says that the celebration of western heritage reminds him that "if we're lucky, we find a place special to us. Even though it may change, if we love it deeply enough, part of it is within us to the end." "The West is rich with so many different types of people, and the photos of indigenous cultures are quite striking. I like one image of a group of young Native American teenagers walking up a grassy slope from a powwow in Montana, and you see RVs and modern amenities in the background and just one girl is looking over her shoulder at the camera. It's not about war paint and battles, but I think there's a lot of power in it."
Wyoming, 2005
Photographer: Joel Sartore

This photo is meant to reveal that aquatic life suffers from natural gas drilling. In recent years, lawsuits pertaining to water quality and waste have prompted controversy between the states of Montana and Wyoming, where a type of gas known as coalbed methane is commonly found. The fuel source is usually surrounded by water, millions of gallons of which must be extracted and sent elsewhere in order to free the natural gas. "For a few of these images, the process for setting up the photo is a fascinating part of the story. Sometimes it is so hard, logistically, for a photographer to document what they see in the wild, so they have to get very creative. If this Joel Sartore image looks impossible, it's because he couldn't get the shot of these fish through the muddy water. Instead he put them in a crystal clear aquarium and held it up so the stream was in the background. There's another image in the collection, of a spotted owl flying straight at the camera, that took days to capture--the photographer had to wait until the owl came in to roost, then set up the camera with a trip light, so the owl's movement triggered the camera's shutter. It took many, many attempts to get it right."
Cherokee Outlet, Oklahoma, nd.
Photographers: Thomas Croft & P.A. Miller

Although Thomas Croft and P.A. Miller technically snapped the shutter on this historic moment, it was photographer William S. Prettyman who was the mastermind behind the shot. Prettyman was a turn-of-the-century photographer who first photographed Native Americans, circumventing the U.S. Army's closure of Indian territory to settlers, by posing as a hunter on vacation. When the largest government-sponsored seizure of Native American land lured more than 100,000 settlers to Oklahoma for a race to claim property on September 16, 1893, Prettyman ensured himself a coveted viewpoint by building a three-story platform near the starting line. When the time came for the actual race, Prettyman left his apprentices to do the work so he could ride off and claim a portion of the 6,361,000 acres for himself. "There are some interesting images that can be considered mildly shocking when placed in the context of history. For example, there is a photo taken in Arizona in the 1880s by a dentist from New York, which shows an anonymous white man and his four Native American wives. And there is a photo of people standing in a Texas cemetery where, beyond a chain link fence, an oil refinery can be seen in the distance. We don't offer an explanation, it's just an honest image."
Nebraska, 1995
Photographer: Joel Sartore

This photograph of cowboys and cowgirls silhouetted against a sunset at the Nebraska Big Rodeo captures a familiar sight for people living out West, where weekend rodeos represent not just a pastime but a way of life. This annual competition takes place on the same 40-acre fairgrounds in Burwell, with one of the world's largest outdoor rodeo arenas and original covered wooden grandstands, as when it was first held in 1921. "I think it is really interesting how some images look old, or aged, when they are contemporary, and some look so modern, but they are historical. It makes you aware that your own mental catalog of images is linked to your perspective of history."
Nevada Cowboy Brian Morris, 1970
Photographer: William Albert Allard

William Albert Allard took this portrait of Circle A Ranch boss Brian Morris after a hard day of driving cattle in Paradise Valley. At the time, Nevada's "Cowboy Country" was a bustling representation of small town life out West, but today this settlement is better described as a ghost town, home to only 300 people. "We put up 10 or 15 options for which image would grace the cover of the book, and we all had a lot to say about it. Bill Allard's photo of a cowboy, taken in 1970, emerged as the clean winner. His costume is iconic, and he's looking right at you. Bill took it when he saw this guy coming out of a bar."
Arizona, 2010
Photographer: Frans Lanting

"King Bend" or "Horseshoe Bend" is part of the Colorado River canyon circuit and is located downstream from Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell near Page, Arizona. Visitors can hike a little less than a mile from US-89 to reach this marvel and take their chances peering over the ledge into the raging river 1,000 feet below. "Of course there are images of cowboys, then and now, but the West is also highways, cities, and iconic landscapes. I drove through Montana up to Canada recently with my wife, and just outside Great Falls I recognized Square Butte from one of Sam Abell's photographs. I said, 'Hey, I know what that is!'"
Tehachapi Wind Farm, California, 2008
Photographer: Jeff Kroeze

_Jeff Kroeze's long exposure photograph of the 5,000 wind turbines in a field near Tehachapi, Calif., show the increasingly industrialized side of the modern West. This collection of wind generators comprise the second largest wind farm in the Golden State area and collectively produce about 800 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year, thus meeting the residential needs of more than 350,000 people and accounting for 1 percent of California's total electricity use.
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"I think every American should ask themselves, 'What is the future of the West?' The identity of this region is very important to the whole country, and what we do here is significant. How do we behave towards our animals, and with other humans, as we move forward? We're reaching out to American educators, and the photographers themselves, to talk about what is important about the images we've collected for National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West. I'm hoping to post videos of these interviews on the dedicated website that we are creating."__
National Museum of Wildlife Art, 2012
Photographer: Ed Riddell

Located near two of America's most visited national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton) in the Jackson Hole valley, the National Museum of Wildlife Art houses the nation's premier public collection of art dedicated to wildlife. In addition to leading conversations on ecology, conservation and the future of wildlife habitat, the museum focuses on bringing exhibits like "National Geographic Greatest Photographs of the American West" to a larger audience. The museum building was inspired by the ruins of Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and appears to emerge from a natural outcropping of rock overlooking the National Elk Refuge. "We're celebrating our 25th anniversary at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, where we house the only significant collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and other renderings devoted only to wildlife. Many of our artists were favorites of Teddy Roosevelt. We recently opened a new outdoor sculpture trail where I always see visitors taking photos of each other with the artwork. That's what it's all about, making the art accessible. Photography is powerful in that way--people understand it and aren't intimidated by it. Plus anyone can take pictures." Visit the exhibit in Jackson Hole, or at any of the participating institutions below, beginning Oct. 27: Booth Western Art Museum, Cartersville, GA.
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY.
Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, IN.
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK.
National Geographic Museum, Washington, D.C.
National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, WY.
Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, NY.
C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, MN.
Stark Museum of Art, Orange, TX
Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, 2008
Photographer: Jim Richardson

Jim Richardson captured one of the three bridges that make up Utah's first national monument in this 2008 photo. The trio of stream carved rock formations are found near the Utah-Colorado border and referred to by their Hopi Indian names. The featured bridge is Owachomo, meaning, "rock mounds." Sipapu meaning "the place of emergence" and Kachina meaning "dancer" are found nearby. The park's other claims to fame include well-preserved Anasazi Indian ruins and the title of being the world's first international "Dark Sky Park," boasting one of the darkest skies in the U.S. with little light pollution. "People may think of museums as just here to save stuff. But I believe that a museum needs to organize itself around the idea that it is a trusted and essential resource in the community. People are thirsty for perspective and want to know what we're doing to the world. I'm excited to be able to extend our reach out around the country and raise a little flag for museums and photography."

National Geographic's "Greatest Photographs of the American West" will debut on October 27, 2012 in 10 different museums across the United States, including the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

A new book of photography, Greatest Photographs of the American West: Capturing 125 Years of Majesty, Spirit, and Adventure, acts as a companion guide to the exhibit. It includes even more images, some never before published, that explore the Western region's unique place in our national history and its reflection of the American spirit.

National Museum of Wildlife Art president and CEO James McNutt talks to Field & Stream's Kristyn Brady about the photographs, the book, and the museum's role in creating the largest photography exhibition ever to open in multiple locations simultaneously.
Click here to find out how to pre-order the book.