“I have vision and the rest of the world has bifocals.”
Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Ansel Adams’ photographs are boring. Those heavily burned in dark clouds above mountains in sharp focus tell us as much about the landscape of the American west as a John Wayne film shot on a backlot. I once listened to a talk by someone who argued that Adams was a Pictorialist who discovered the focus ring on his camera. I couldn’t disagree. For all the claims about him being at the forefront of American modernism, he clung to the Pictorialist values of image over content and the print as a surface for manufacturing illusion long after they had outlived their usefulness, except as a faintly nationalistic idea of the west as repository for America’s soul. The real modernists, the people who thought there was a much more elemental way of depicting the landscape, mostly escaped the attention of the museums, the critics and the academies until it was too late.
One of them was Burton Frasher (1888 to 1950) who, between about 1920 and 1950 travelled across the southwest, from California, through Nevada, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, leaving as his legacy thousands of photographs of the landscape. You wouldn’t exactly describe him as unsung: there is a huge online archive of his work available through the Pomona Library and it has a couple of accompanying articles, including an interview with his son, Burton Jnr, that may be the most comprehensive description of a postcard photographer at work. Some of us think the idea of driving across the landscape and taking photographs is the ideal job, but one thing that comes across in the interview is how hard photographers like Frasher worked. The market was cutthroat, they could not afford to slacken their output and they were constantly on the road. When Frasher started out, ‘the road’ was often dirt tracks and the cars weren’t well designed for them. When the Lincoln Highway travel guide was first published in 1915, it advised drivers to carry almost a whole engine’s worth of replacement parts because once the highway entered Utah anything could happen. By the 1920s it could recommend newly built gas stations and roadhouses along the way but spare tyres, fan belts, spark plugs and chains were still essential. This then is Frasher’s world. It can’t have been that rough. Where else were you going to get views like this one?
One reason that Frasher may not have got the attention he deserves was that he was primarily a commercial photographer, and that meant that there were a lot of clichés among the wonderful views: cacti at sunset, cute animals and scenes like this. The rider on the rise gazing across the desert had already been done to death by the time Frasher took this, and that may have been why he chose to. He could be sure it would sell. This is the west of Marlboro ads. It’s the type of image where every element in itself is depicted perfectly but in combination they add to very little.
Frasher’s real value to us lies in scenes where he is taking part in the creation of a myth rather than recreating old ones. Back when he took this the desert highway gas station wasn’t yet a cultural icon. Greyhound had pushed a campaign in the 1930s encouraging Americans to take their new streamlined buses cross-country and the scene of someone arriving in a small town by bus was common enough in films but images like this would really belong to the post-war boom. These days we’ve seen so many road movies that we recognize it at once, and there’s no shortage of photos of abandoned and decaying gas stations. This belongs to an era when Chevron was a relative newcomer to Arizona. Note the oil stain leading in.
What does Frasher mean by “today, along North Virginia St”? Presumably he is measuring North Virginia St of the 1930s against the past, in which case he is asking us to see how it has changed, or hasn’t, since the days of the Comstock Lode silver rush. . The Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection has an image of the Pioneer Drug Store (the shop the man is standing outside of) that could have been taken on the same day and even by Frasher, though it is unaccredited . The building was constructed during the mining era, the actual drugstore may have been. Though the town now has electricity, telephones and cars, Frasher seems to be suggesting that very little has changed in essence. The two really interesting details are the advertisement for postcards on the pole to the man’s left, and the advertisement for Kodak developing films on the window to his right. My guess is that Frasher did business with the owners and that may be one there. I do not understand why our great grandfathers thought a three piece suit was the proper thing to wear in the desert.
I had a post some months back about Frasher’s photos of Native Americans. If his studies of Navajo, Apache, Hopi and Acoma people are not his best work, they constitute the most interesting reading. He swings between frank depictions and the frankly banal, being aware of the poverty and wretched conditions in one scene then playing up the most gratuitous stereotypes in others. This was taken at the Little Colorado Trading Post, now called the Cameron Trading Post. What’s interesting here are the dynamics between the group and those with the photographer. We see hostility, or at the least apprehension, indifference and some willingness. Though the scene is arranged, this was not a world where a white man could turn up with a camera and order people about. Nor were the Navajos likely to do as they were told just because Frasher was a familiar figure. The feeling is that he had some rapport with them, to the extent he probably spoke Navajo, but just because someone was willing to sit for him, that didn’t mean they had to behave as he wanted. There are lots of details to consider in this scene, from the physical structure with the people descending to the background to the detritus, the saddles, pots and bowls lying about. There may have been some arrangement of the people but nothing else in the scene has been touched. That isn’t a small point. In the 1930s and well beyond, National Geographic photographers commonly fitted up scenes to show things the way they thought they should be. In this case, others may have seen the stuff lying about as proof of the Navajos’ social irresponsibility but to Frasher this is the way things are. People leave bowls over the doorway because they do.
The personal Frasher collection is regrettably small. If I had more to show, I would. Some of his best photographs are of industrial scenes in the new west of the 1930s. If you thought Ansel Adams was the eminent modernist of the era, that’s because you haven’t seen Frasher’s views of Boulder Dam or the Californian oil wells. But he was also a good historian. I won’t say ‘great’, because his idea of history is largely directed by the tourist industry. Take the Calico graveyard. In the 1930s, as tourists began crossing the west, old ghost towns like Calico that had been considered little more than rubble a few years earlier suddenly became popular sites. And if you wanted a vivid experience of the old west, what better than a graveyard out in the desert, lined with memorials to prospectors, cowboys and outlaws who had met their maker prematurely? Forget Adams and think for a moment of Walker Evan’s famous image of a grave in (I think) Alabama. It is anonymous; barely a ripple in the gravel, but what has excited many critics is the originality of Evans’s idea: a grave! How surprisingly familiar. Who else would have thought of it? Well, a critic might be someone between proper jobs but anyway, I prefer Frasher to Evans on this one. Because there are several graves there is a more macabre atmosphere, but simultaneously, and more importantly, an awareness that these piles of stones belong to people; something more real. There’s also a sense here of eternity in the peace of the desert. Fully convinced that once I die that’s it, no trumpets welcoming me to the pearly gates, I’d prefer to be placed out here than just about anywhere else I can think of.
If I haven’t any Frasher views of industry here to convince you he deserves more attention that is only because I have always preferred his other scenes, particularly of the Arizona desert. I don’t think it is overheated hype to say that Frasher found his eye in Arizona. There’s a feeling of excitement, of real awe, what the syphilis riddled German philosophers used to call the sublime, in his landscape scenes out here. Because, and only because, he published his photographs as postcards, we tend to brush aside the idea that such a person could feel any spiritual empathy with the land. I think you could only take a photo like this if the scene moved you. I’m prepared to guess that Frasher waited until he thought the sunlight fell just where he wanted. Also, he found the precise position that emphasised the strangeness of these geological wonders. I say that, but it might be worth knowing that Frasher is standing at the edge of Route 160 when he took this. Maybe he was driving past and got lucky, or just as possible, he’d driven down this road so often that fifteen miles away, he glanced up at the sun and realized that if he planted his foot on the pedal he’d get here just in time.
This is just the kind of view that Ansel Adams acolytes would dismiss as average, yet for their opponents it proves the very point that Frasher is more interesting. Perfection and feeling are seldom synonymous. One guts the other. How would Mr Adams have dealt with this scene? We know the answer almost immediately. Firstly he would have emphasized the contours in the distant mountains, and then the snow on the even more distant peaks. But what does Frasher draw our attention to? Well, ‘Mushroom Rock’ for a start, but also the road. This is as much a photograph of the experience of driving across Death Valley as it is of an unusual geological feature. What the Adamites don’t get is that the snowy peaks work best subliminally. They don’t matter so much as the two odd squares on road improvement just below the mushroom. This is as much a photo of what it means to drive across Death Valley as Death Valley itself. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to experience a road trip across the American southwest knows that the true wonders lie in the glimpses, not the studied observations. Of course Frasher stopped to take this photo but it was sold as a reminder to travellers of what they had seen and what they had missed.
Frasher’s postcard of North Virginia St, Reno, bears an uncanny resemblance to several taken by Lawrence Engel of the Nevada Photo Service about the same time. We could say the differences are so slight we ought not bother with them. This is Reno in its heyday. I doubt anyone visiting today would disagree. Interestingly, (I say, having only just realized this) the absence of casino and club signs indicate this was taken either before or just at the time that Nevada legalized gambling. The effect of that upon Reno’s streetscape was dramatic. These days North Virginia St isn’t even a shadow of its glory days; it looks more like a bunch of developers dumped a bloated corpse on the street and walked away. Still, the point here is not to remind ourselves of legitimated criminal behaviour but Burton Frasher. My feeling is that Frasher may be ignored by the standard histories but those of us who suspect there is always something left out or overlooked will discover his work and in the process reinvigorate a tired story. Anybody who believes the story of America’s landscape photography has been told hasn’t looked hard enough.