Cowboy, Painter and Photographer

As a child my first impression of English films was seeing Mackenna’s Gold, a big budget western film, where cowboys went looking for the mountain of gold and got corrupted and died by its lure. I was fascinated by Cowboys, read cowboy comics, tied a handkerchief around my neck galloped around my house waiting to lasso a wild horse. Since I used to live in a flat in Bombay, I could only lasso, the carpet that was rolled and kept under our divan, which would be spread out when visitors came in the evening. How did the image of the cowboy and westerns come to dominate world cinema, how did this uniquely American invention become one of the great cultural exports of America?

The cowboy had become a part of the American psyche. Something there was about him—the time was when the rail roads were being built across the American west, he sat tall in the saddle, alone, unshaven, facing danger, Man vs Man, The outlaw versus The Honest gun slinger, this was staged in a vast unforgiving American plains, the searing heat and the unforgiving Sun. Denim and the Stetson became style statements across the world — that appealed to people and made the cowboy a folk hero, a half-real, half-mythological symbol of the American West.

When I became a student of films and cinematography, I was fascinated by landscapes. Ansel Adams was the biggest photographic influence on me. I adored his seminal books “The Camera, The Negative, the Print”, studied the zone system to get a hang on latitude.

I read about his life, his influential friends Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, who convinced him of his unique Photographic style that later on, made him the legend in the field of landscape photography.
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But how did he get interested in Yellow stone national park?

William Henry Jackson was a civil war veteran, explorer, painter and a photographer for the US geographical survey. He went on mule back, with heavy gear, large view cameras, which required heavy glass plates that had to be coated with wet colloidal solution and exposed before it dried up, these plates had to be developed on site, without light measuring instruments, exposure time required inspired guess work and the number of exposure in any trip were limited by the sheer weight of the glass plates that had to be hauled over road less terrain without any breakage.
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William Henry took photographs and also painted simultaneously, an era where an artist practiced painting and was also embracing the new medium of photography.

Later William Henry Jackson’s paintings and Photographs influenced writers and film makers, who helped create the cowboy myth.

It is said that his photographs convinced the then President Ulysses S Grant to declare Yellow Stone as a national park in 1872. Could a photograph have such a profound impact? Who was he?

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William Henry Jackson is one of the most respected landscape painter, illustrators of the American West. His career in photography was one of the longest and most successful. He won his reputation with his resourcefulness and skill, his luck, his capacity for hard work, his longevity, and his talents as a photographer and a businessman. Jackson could and did create images of the Western landscape that were large in size and grandiose in scale, confirming the grandest ideals of those exponents of America’s Manifest Destiny.

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The opening of the Pacific Railroad in 1869 rendering easy access a region rich in scenic effects and interest, he determined to photograph it. He took 8×10 negatives and stereo views. He also traveled with the World’s Transportation Commission, which took him to the Near and Far East, Australia, China, Siberia and Russia from 1894-1896.

What makes it even more personal is, William Jackson passed through Madras, on a steamer and took three pictures, he obviously found the newly finished High Court building, a gem of the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture, worthy of a picture.

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Whether his primitive photographs merit comparison with the artistic respect we bestow on Ansel Adams work, is a subject for art historians, but for photographers like us, it is an inspiration to accept new ways of looking and using new mediums and tools to express.

I recently visited the Kochi Biennale to get my fix of the latest trends in the art world. The event is one of the best executed art projects in our country and gaining a formidable reputation world over. What struck me were the negligible number of paintings and even fewer exhibits of photographs. Installation art, Audio and Video installations were largest in number. Have the artiste given up the canvas? Why have they taken up to video installation art now? Is it because the medium has become accessible and don’t need to know the mathematics and science behind Photography or deal with film labs, prints and the censors?
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When two medium co exist for expression, votaries for each medium, praise one medium and bemoan the imminent death of the other, there is a great churn in the artistic community, it takes a few more decades before the calm returns and a new genius takes up the art, shoots the same subjects and creates works of great artistic value. Like William Henry Jackson, who was trained as a painter dabbled with the new medium of photography, the artists of today are trying to get the hang of a new more expressible medium and master the same.

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When Inspiration strikes! Shoot on your SLR , or on your iPhone ! Whatever may be the display mediums, let us paint, shoot or create installation art of the Yellow stone national park or for folks like me, the High Court building in Madras that is now Chennai.

– Rajiv Menon

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7 Comments

  1. Very compelling narrative and motivation to get out there and capture stories in stone, wood, mud, leaf and sky!

    Brilliant observation on the preference of video or movement-based art over still art. Interpretation of still art requires more effort – the audience has to work harder – reach out. For videos, the medium keeps feeding the audience information which is the engagement that is a sign of our times.

  2. Today photography has reqched the masses on 2 counts. 1) its affordable 2) digital has taken the drudgery out of it

    Today you dont need to understand the science of it to take photographs. Earlier photography was considered as part of ART

    Availabilty of cameras that can take good videos at a reasonable cost can be one reason . Your can shoot a decent video with iphone as well.

  3. Rajiv,I loved your article,shooting straight from the heart and deeply exhibits one side the angst and on the other ,the passion of a photographer. I sort of had the same thoughts at the Bienalle and was wishing to see more photos and art . I did a trip of the Cascades,Yellowstone,the Grand Tetons and the Arches,Canyonlands and Bryce where most of the westerns that we so adore were filmed. Have to go back again on horseback and with a fly rod and camera ,they key will be when to put down the rod and pick up the camera.will send you some pics soon for your perusal

  4. Enjoyed ur blog and the great photographs and paintings! Brought back memories of my own childhood fascination for cowboys and the awesome cowboy landscapes. I did nothing about it but you did and see where it has got u Rajiv! Keep it up and God bless!

  5. Rajiv,that was a very nice article indeed. As we all know photography stands apart coz of its perception and origin. Installion art, video, mixed media etc etc are its derivatives. It’s very sad to think that paintings hv moved off the canvas and even off the walls. Similarly Photographs are personal, and hv a story behind them. You don’t have to be a professional for taking a picture. So let’s all itch out and shoot more.

  6. I too remember being facinated by Mackenna’s Gold and the first visual of the Old Turkey buzzards eye on 70mm in Devi theatre. There is something about the two dimensions that makes images jump out and grab you like no sculpture or 3D IMAX can.

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