“Creating” Colorado’s Landscape: Mountains, Myth and Movement in the Visual Rhetoric of the Centennial State

David Staton (University of Oregon, Eugene (OR), USA)

Summary of the Project

Picture Colorado in your mind’s eye. Likely, you imagine snow-capped peaks, clear streams, aspens, and verdant meadows along the Rocky Mountain Range or perhaps the flat expanses of the plains dotted with crops and cattle that run east to Kansas and Nebraska. Pikes Peak. The Gold Rush. Skiing or white water rafting. A central premise of this dissertation is that the photographic documentation of the state’s landscape is inseparable from the shifting visual narrative(s) that have defined it. This project will investigate how various groups crafted the state’s environmental narrative using the medium of photography, particularly the still photograph form. What were its narratives of the land and how were they constructed and who owns them? The cause of resistances, and shifts in dominant narrative are tethered to the interplay of competing ideological narratives, technologies, and human-made constructs centered on landscape itself. An important part of this inquiry seeks to locate these visual counter narratives and identify how they are constituted.


Colorado makes an ideal investigation case study as its landscape has long been a part of the public’s imaginary. Because the invention of photography preceded the initial land surveys by some dozen years, the state has been portrayed in visual dialogues from the era of Manifest Destiny, to gold rushes, oil booms and tourist attractions (with healing powers), to natural surroundings (with religious qualities), and suburbanization. These images have shaped public policy and opinion and crafted normative ideologies. There have also been competing visual rhetorics that have challenged narratives and visual tropes that put themselves forward as truth. This dissertation will examine the myths, tensions, and dynamics created by photographers documenting and celebrating the landscape of the Centennial State.

Research Question

My research questions and ensuing discoveries will examine relationships of people and landscape and photography’s role in this dynamic.

Theoretical Framework

Nature or wilderness is a cultural construction that for the last 175 years has been mediated by what photographs tell and sell, as well as shaping historically-situated modes of interpretation. Cronon (1995) sees a contradiction in the concept of nature. Wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in (80) nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not. If this is so–if by definition wilderness leaves no place for human beings (Cronon, p. 80-81). From the celebration of the land to its suburbanization and denigration, photographs have documented this contradiction. Photography provides a visual document to locate our place in and relationship with the land. We engage with the practices of looking to make sense of the world. The production and consumption of photographs are social practices. Photographs create a sense of space and place and may create templates for the ways in which lives are lived within those environs, and, importantly, those images reveal how those environments are social constructions made visible by the camera. Additionally, photographs have documented and dictated the unfolding contestations since Westward expansion with varying parties controlling the discourse. It has played out in various media and locations, from newspapers to coffee table books to art galleries. In these varying contributions, the photography of Colorado’s landscape has set agendas and staked out political capital, built empire, and created myths within and beyond its borders.

Picturing Eden

The power of nature and landscape have fueled Colorado’s narrative since the self-funded Frémont survey of 1853. Accompanying Frémont survey was Solomon Nunes Carvalho, a daguerrotypist. His obligation, as set forth by Frémont was to mimic the sort of long, detailed sketches of the topography that had previously been crafted by draughtsmen surveyors. The explorer wanted his lensman to bring back series of images that would replicate the landscape; he wanted sequential images that could be “stitched” together to create a representative panorama.

The daguerrotype camera and its optics were not up to this challenge. The camera’s design would not allow for focus on foreground and background without compromising one or the other and, due to its long exposure time, the daguerrotypes weren’t capable of capturing any dynamic movement without a resultant blurring in the image. But, from the outset, Frémont had a vision of how the photographs should look and what function they would offer. The real importance of the small singular images lay in their collective capacity to narrate a story. As so often happened in the early history of photography, there emerged a gap between what images could portray and the grander cultural expectations their prospective users held (Sandweiss 2002, p. 100).

There exists but one surviving daguerrotype from this expedition , but that rhetorical stance, theideas that images should illustrate, illuminate, and narrate has held sway in subsequent images made by later survey crews and generations of photographers to come. There were other 1 Carvalho’s single extant photograph, “Cheyenne Village of Big Timbers,” a daguerrotype half-plate from 1853 isheld by the Library of Congress. Some 300 of the fragile images were made by Carvalho during this expedition. government funded or business funded surveys as well, most all of which made incursions into Colorado. Each of these crews had accompanying photographers, including the noted Timothy

O’Sullivan with the King survey and William Henry Jackson with the Hayden survey. They enjoyed an improved method to tell those stories of their expeditions; the wet-plate collodion process had displaced the daguerrotype as the method of choice for photographers. This was a remarkable technological leap forward as the wet-plate process produced a negative, which allowed for multiple prints of a single image. The image, as reproduced from highly-detailed glass plate negatives as large as 18×22” was much more clear; the details provide by such a large negative are singularly impressive as the negative is placed directly to the photo sensitive papers and contact printed. The narrative, however, remained the same—Manifest Destiny wasAmerica’s birthright. And part of that right was the ability to claim the land and its resources.

The photographers, almost all federally funded, would see their work surface (and resurface in varying context) in World Expositions as well as galleries and later in tourism promotionals in service to such ideas.

This project will trace such visual rhetorics as they developed in the era of Manifest Destiny through to contemporary iterations and representations manifest in the charged posturing of hydraulic fracturing dialogues taking place contemporarily. This investigation is bound to my home state, Colorado, a state that counts natural resources and its beauty as the pillars of its foundation.


By contrast the most common pre-digital film format was 35 mm which measures roughly one square inch, which had to be enlarged via a projected light source to produce images. In my approach, a triangulation of methods will be an effective exploration. I will address this using a framework provided by Gillian Rose (2012) and connect the research questions to particular areas of that template. Because I am particularly interested in representation and its social effects, I find a kinship with the views of Rose, who argues that images are not simple depictions but social constructions. In this regard, she echoes concerns of Fyfe and Law (1988): “To understand a visualisation is thus to enquire into its provenance and into the social work that it does … and to decode the hierarchies and differences that it naturalises (1988: 1). As such, Rose establishes a critical cultural framework that incorporates the agency or creator of the image, the social practices and effects that come as a result of it being seen, and the varying audiences that view the image. She contends visual material takes on meaning at three sites: the site of production, the site of the image, and the site of audiencing. She also deftly overlays modalities to each site, contending they will inform a critical understanding. Those modalities include the technological, the social, and the compositional.

Methodological Reflections

The site of production

Any examination of a photographic images should begin by asking questions about its production. Under what circumstances did this photograph come into being? Which media or technologies did the photographer engage? Who was the image made by and for, and to which genre does it belong? Within this site are contested meanings and definitions of the truthfulness of photographs, as myth or as evidence, as fact or fantasy. And too, the intention of the image maker invites a wealth of opinion. Is it the economy, ideology, politics, or some combination of these that are embedded in photographs? Technology plays a role here in at least two ways; what was the device used to produce the image and how is the image displayed? If the photograph and its maker are supposed to belong to a genre, such as poverty or racism, then certain compositional elements or motifs are expected to be contained within the frame. The site of production is also tethered in myriad ways to the social and the temporal or perhaps modernity (meaning exists) and post-modernity (there are no fixed meanings) and, of course, capitalism plays a role in image production and in expressing a cultural logic or ethos.

The site of the image

The second of Rose’s three sites looks to the image itself. How and why was the image created? Is it selling something, referring to something, reflective of a politicized issue? Is it a commodity? Rose asserts that the most important aspect of the site of the image is its compositionality. While admitting there exists debate about how to theorize an object’s effects, she contends, “Such discussions of the compositional modality of the site of the image can produce persuasive accounts of a photograph’s effects on its viewers (p. 28, emphasis added). She also nods to the visual and sensory effects that are subjective (or may make one reconsider their subjectivity) and may be affective.

The site of audiencing

“You are an audience of that photograph and, like all audiences, you bring to it your own ways of seeing and other kinds of knowledges” (p. 30). As with the site of the image itself, so too compositionality play a role here. Is the composition such that gender or race are somehow privileged? Questions arise as to point of view—is the audience on the receiving end of a visual pun, acting as voyeur, responding to the contextual re-mediation via appropriation of an image or a visual trope? Context is significant as well: “You don’t do the same things while you are surfing a website gallery as you do when you are in a gallery looking at a framed photograph.” This leads to what Rose considers the most important component of the site of audiencing, the social, particularly the way that social practices inform how visuals are viewed. And too, social identity is a variable. Clearly, not all audiences experience images in the same way; by way of cultural upbringing, race, gender or previous trauma or experience, audiences are not homogeneous.


This tri-part framework, or template, provided by Rose dovetails well with my project, which will rely on three different methods of gathering data: via in-depth interviews with producers of images and via focus groups using photo elicitation of those images. To this, I will add a textual analysis of images through research at the various institutions holding photographic archives of Colorado’s changing landscape. In crossover fashion, some of my methods may lead to findings in more than one of the Rose framework sites, thus offering more data than a single method might afford. Creswell, (2013. p. 19) notes that data analysis in qualitative approaches pushes and pulls at the conceptual framework used and the research question posed. Ideally this will allow for a study that provides in-depth perspectives and be generalizable to a larger population.

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