September 28, 2009
Meet the Wild Bunch, left, a group of outlaws active in the late 1800s who terrorized Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and the Oklahoma Territory. In 1900, as the story goes, after robbing a bank in Winnemucca, Nevada, the group dispersed and later met up in Fort Worth, Texas. There, they marched into a local photography studio deck out in their Sunday best and had their portrait taken.
Meet the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a private U.S. security guard and detective force ordered to put a stop to the illegal activities of the Wild Bunch. Legend has it that the gang sent the Pinkerton’s this iconic image. They also sent it to a bank after robbing it. (The stories of the groups nefarious deeds are shrouded in history and difficult to verify, but the Pinkerton agency somehow acquired the image and donated it to the Smithsonian in 1982.)
Finally, meet the National Portrait Gallery‘s associate curator of photography Frank Goodyear, who chose this image for his “Faces of the Frontier” exhibit, which went on view last week. The Wild Bunch portrait along with 114 others are guaranteed to tell more stories of the Wild West than all of Louis L’Amour novels combined.
Goodyear chose to focus on the years 1845-1924. The start date coincides with the annexation of Texas, the end date with the passing of the National Origins Act and the Indian Citizenship Act. The exhibit is split into four categories: land, exploration, discord and possibilities. Each historical figure is categorized into one of these topics.
“They all have such great stories,” Goodyear says. “If I talked about each one, we’d be here for three hours.” Yet he can barely keep from addressing each and every face. Some are images of famous Westerners you’d expect to see: Jesse James, Samuel Houston, Geronimo and Teddy Roosevelt. Others are less familiar: Joshua Norton, Olive Oatman, Ann Eliza Young and Eadweard Muybridge. But sometimes, their stories are even more interesting.
“Joshua Norton was the first Bohemian of the West,” Goodyear says. He tried to corner the market in a certain grain, and after failing, went a little crazy. He proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States” and would issue proclamations from time to time. But the town of San Francisco loved him, so they played along. Later on, he suggested a bridge be built connecting San Francisco and Oakland. The idea was dismissed as ludicrous. (Construction on the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge began in 1933, 53 years after Norton’s death.) When he died, 30,000 people attended his funeral.
Olive Oatman was traveling to California when their group was attacked by Apache Indians. Oatman was capture and eventually adopted into a Mojave family. Following tradition, her chin was tattooed with four lines. When she was released years later, the details of her story fueled public misconceptions of the era that all Indians were violent savages.
Ann Eliza Young’s poster-like photograph was done by a well-known studio in the West, Houseworth. Young was the 19th wife of Mormon leader Brigham Young. After divorcing him, she went on a lecture tour criticizing the Mormon way of life. “She was a controversial figure then, and she’s a controversial figure now,” Goodyear says. An image of her ex-husband hangs on an adjacent wall.
Muybridge’s self portrait in the Mariposa Grove, the famous grove of great sequoias in Yosemite National Park, is one of the most stunning images in the show. The giant tree dwarfs the man, and his frame is almost imperceptable standing next to the enormous trunk. The 1872 photograph itself is in extraordinary condition, maintaining the purple hues instead of the yellows found in aging prints. “It’s probably been in an album and didn’t see the light of day,” Goodyear says. The large, 18×22 portrait was created before the birth of enlargers so the negative would have to have been the same size as the final print. “You can only imagine the size of the camera,” Goodyear says. He’s quick to point out that there were no highways in that part of the park at that time, either. Muybridge and his assistant would have had to carry the camera along miles of steep mountain trails.
Other highlights include the only known likeness of jeans-maker Levi Strauss and of Joseph Glidden, the guy who invented barbed wire. A specially designed aparatus, similar to a viewmaster or an antique stereoscope and created specifically for the museum’s show, allows visitors to see a 3-D images of the works. “Prior to the cinema, this was a popular form of entertainment,” Goodyear says. But these are just some of the stories represented in the exhibit.
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