go west


Is the American west a place or an idea? This is the question at the heart of an exhibition of photographs that opened last week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and of the book that accompanies it. The answer, of course, is both: geographically, it is the part of the United States west of the Mississippi; metaphorically, it is synonymous with freedom, escape, enterprise, individualism and all manner of new starts. In this, it reflects many qualities that Americans claim as their birthright. From the mid-19th century the belief in “Manifest Destiny” – that it was God’s will that Americans should occupy the country all the way to the Pacific – drove the gradual colonisation from the east, including the driving out of Native Americans and annexing of land for farming, mining, the building of railways and, later, nuclear test sites, military bases and chemical waste dumps. This exhibition looks at how the idea of the west took hold, even as the land that had inspired it was being plundered and destroyed, and suggests that photography has been one of the principal motors of that exchange.

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