Book review: Print the Legend by Martha Sandweiss

A mid-nineteenth century daguerrotype of Native American lodges.
(Source)

Print the Legend is an impressive contribution on multiple planes, for Martha Sandweiss not only recounts the complex history of the use of photography in the American West between 1840 and 1890, she also guides both the general reader and historian alike in the process of rethinking how we interpret and utilize photography. She posits two ways to think of how we interpret and use photographs as primary source documents: in history, which requires knowledge “about the circumstances of its making, the photographer’s intent, the public function of the image, the ways in which it was received and understood by contemporary audiences” (p. 9) and through history, in which “we must give attention to the shifting fate of the image—the ways in which it might have moved into archives or attics, museums or scrapbooks, and the ways in which it has been reinterpreted over time” (p. 9). The title of the book is a reference to a quote from the 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, in which the newspaper editor states: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes a fact print the legend” (p. 324). This highlights Sandweiss’s encompassing theme of the difficulty of promoting photography in the face of more mythologized media such as painting and printmaking. Print the Legend is highly marketable to a wide variety of audiences: her prose is eloquent and easy to read, and the book itself, which is printed on high-quality glossy paper, is aesthetically pleasing and can be distributed in multiple types of settings, such as major bookstores and museums. Sandweiss is currently a history professor at Princeton University, but her background as a photography curator at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and as a professor of American Studies allows her to tackle her subject matter with a fresh and unique perspective than she in turn is able to effectively communicate to multiple types of readers. 

Sandweiss demonstrates that photography had a difficult and uneven path to success during critical periods in the expansion of the American West in the face of more popular media. She breaks her book into two eras: the first era dealt with the daguerrotype, which spans from about 1840 to 1850. She looks specifically at photography in the Mexican-American War, the utilization of photographs in support of other media such as painted panoramas, and documentation of the American West for governmental exploration purposes. However, according to Sandweiss, photography at this time had a difficult time catching on as a popular medium at this time for two primary reasons: first, people preferred more creative media such as painting and prints to the daguerrotype, perceiving them to be more “truthful” methods of portraying the West while they were more effective in conveying popular mythologies of Manifest Destiny; second, the daguerrotype itself was very difficult to process in the field, grueling to transport in large numbers (the copper plate negatives could get very heavy) and was additionally arduous to reproduce on a large scale. The daguerrotype era occupied the first three chapters of the book. The second era, which was encompassed by the following four chapters, was that of the glass plate negative, which spans from about 1860 to 1880. The invention of the glass plate negative was a crucial development in photography that allowed for easier processing in the field and wider distribution due to its mass printability. However, even with the increased exposure to photographs created by glass plate negatives, Sandweiss argues that “there remained the longstanding gap between the technical capacity of the photographic medium and cultural demands placed upon it” (p. 130). Audiences still craved the mythological portrayals of the West that were so easily imparted by other visual media. The ultimate innovation that aided in the reception of photographs of the West was the inclusion of text, which narrated what was being portrayed. The very title of this book is a witty reference back to the enhanced effectiveness of photography with the inclusion of text, thus bringing her argument full circle. The sixth chapter—“Momentoes of Race: Photography and the American Indian”—highlights what is perhaps her most compelling and well-written argument: the photography of Native Americans by white American photographers contributed to nostalgic notions of the past, which thus led to their loss of control over their own portrayed identities and contributed to the mythology of the “vanishing race.”

Sandweiss looks at both the cultural and technological contexts of photography and employs an impressive array of source material to support her arguments: it is in her secondary sources in particular that you can see her comfort with a wide assortment of scholarship, for she employs art historical works, such as Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977) and Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), as easily as she does historical works. However, it could be argued that she relies too heavily on secondary sources, therefore her primary sources are comparatively somewhat weaker. Indeed, most of the photographs that are featured in the book come from places where she either worked or received her education—namely the Beinecke Library at Yale, the Amherst College Library, and the Amon Carter Museum—but she ultimately successfully utilizes them to support her larger narrative. Additionally, though her scholarly research spans across the areas of history, visual culture, and American studies, some of her references are lacking. During her discussion of photography of Native Americans, she states, “Without the personal link they once had to their subjects, such portraits remain astonishingly specific and agonizingly vague, full of information and time-bound stories beyond all recovering. They speak to an absence as much as a presence” (p. 216). This discussion of presence and absence is a clear allusion to the work of Jacques Derrida, specifically his 1976 work On Grammatology, yet not once is his work referenced in the notes.

The issues with Print the Legend are small and relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of the framework that Sandweiss has provided us for considering and implementing photographs of the American West. This book can be used in history, art history, and photography classrooms alike, and any aficionado of historical photography —professional and non-professional alike—can pick up this book at a museum or bookstore and enjoy it just as thoroughly.

Disclaimer: This is a draft of a review written for HIST 6317: Readings in the American West at CU Boulder. This post is intended to serve as a starting point for further research for interested readers, NOT as a book report to be copied. Any copying of this post is plagiarism, which is very frowned upon in academia. 

(c) Stefani at Florence and the Historian, 2012

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One thought on “Book review: Print the Legend by Martha Sandweiss

  1. Pingback: This Week « Bricks + Mortar

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