Museum of Modern Art, New York
Through June 8

“Is the American West a place or an idea?” said Liz Jobey in the London Guardian. Primarily the latter, suggests a new photo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The 19th century, during which the West was gradually being overrun by American settlers, was precisely when photography was developing as an artistic medium. Earlier pioneers trekked into “unmapped territories to make pictures of the spectacular natural landscape,” such as the images Carleton Watkins captured of giant California redwoods in 1861. Yet even as these photographers celebrated the previously unimagined beauties of the continent’s unknown edge, they also “advertised the West as a place to be traveled to and occupied.” That tension between the beauty of nature and the tragedy of its exploitation runs through every one of these 150 or so pictures.

In almost all, the West comes across “as stark, isolated, and majestic—but also a bit menacing,” said Martha Schwendener in The Village Voice. Compare Alvin Langdon Coburn’s inspiring 1911 landscape of the Yosemite Valley, for instance, with a 1982 image of an abandoned Arizona uranium factory, taken by Joel Sternfeld. A similar sense that the wonder has gone out of the West is evident in Irving Penn’s 1967 portrait of a group of Hells Angels, especially when compared with something like Edward Curtis’ 1906 image of Hopi women. The curators encourage such juxtapositions by arranging the images in groups by subject matter, rather than chronologically. The show thus leaps confusingly from one historical period to the next, even as it fails to take its story up to the present day by leaving out such developments as Las Vegas’ population explosion or “the ski industry’s effect on the Rockies.”

Actually, I could have done with even less emphasis on recent history, said Ken Johnson in The New York Times. Where the gorgeous mid-20th-century photographs of Ansel Adams and Minor White worked hard to “shape a new romantic poetry for an intensely industrialized society,” many contemporary artists lapse into an easy cynicism. Grim portraits of everyday people by Bill Owens and Larry Sultan present an “all-too-predictably bleak view of America’s realization of its Manifest Destiny.” They make their point: that America has failed to live up to its founding myths. But their underlying  assumption—that the human and natural worlds have thus been emptied of any beauty whatsoever—has become “another myth, a paradoxically reassuring narrative to which many high-minded people now unthinkingly accede.”