Robbie Short

A new exhibition at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library uses photography to examine the history of the American an “Eye on the West.”

The exhibition, titled “Eye on the West,” includes over 100 contemporary photographs from the Yale Collection of Western Americana. It was curated by George Miles ’74 GRD ’77, the Beinecke’s curator of Western Americana, and runs until Dec. 16. On Friday, the library will host an opening celebration featuring a keynote address by Eric Paddock ART ’82, the Denver Art Museum’s curator of photographs, followed by a reception. And on Saturday, three panel discussions with photographers featured in the exhibition will take place.

“‘Eye on the West’ is an exhibition that grows out of my conviction that for the last 160 — almost 200 years — photographers have been among the most interesting and influential observers and recorders of events, people and landscapes of the American West,” Miles said. “For the Yale Collection of Western Americana, which seeks to document the history and culture of the Trans-Mississippi West and the many diverse communities that occupy it, collecting photographs is natural.”

Yale’s collections include tens of thousands of photographs of the West captured in the 19th century. Over the past 20 years, Miles has worked to expand the Beinecke’s collection of contemporary photography of the West. His approach has involved acquiring extensive collections of works representing a small number of artists, rather than collecting only a few photographs by a wider group of artists. The result was a collection of exceptional depth.

But Miles’ approach also made the task of selecting images for display in “Eye on the West” a challenge. He began by looking through about 8,000 photographs. He knew that the limited exhibition space at the Beinecke meant that he would have to exclude much of the collection from the exhibition. First, he tried to select photos that reflected the breadth of artists’ approaches to depicting the West. Left with about 250 images, he started arranging them by theme.

Some themes he had in mind from the beginning, such as landscape and political activism. But others emerged as he sorted through his collection trying to assemble the exhibition.

“I don’t think I set out to do images on ceremony, but there were some spectacular images of celebrations, of graduations and of community events that caused me to say, ‘Ceremony needs to be a part of this show,’” Miles said. “I discovered I wanted to do something on family, and so I started to look for images on family.”

When organizing the exhibition, Miles had to work within the space available in the Beinecke. The exhibition cases are fixed in place, and the glass tower of books in the center of the structure defines the shape and size of areas available to show the photographs. Because the Beinecke was not originally designed to host photography exhibitions, Miles had to make creative layout choices in order to achieve his goal of displaying as many photographs as possible. For example, some photographs hang from the walls of the tower adjacent to the table cases. Miles also limited his use of explanatory text to accompany the photographs.

Other curatorial choices included replacing the Beinecke’s standard light brown-grey cloth backings for display cases with white mat boards. The Beinecke’s conservators and exhibition preparators, Kerri Sancomb, Marie-France Lemay, Frances Osugi, Ansley Joe and Sarah Davis, spent hours designing the installation to create display cases that Miles said “feel more formal, and pulled out the individual photographs so that they pop.”

David Ottenstein ’82, a photographer whose work appears in the show, also noted the challenges of mounting an exhibition of photographs at the Beinecke. Still, he commended the “Eye on the West” team’s creativity in addressing the difficulties of the space to “present [the photographers’] work wonderfully.”

Ottenstein added that visiting the Beinecke often served as inspiration during his time at Yale.

“As an undergraduate at Yale in the early 1980s studying photography and American Studies, it was a very special treat when we’d visit the Beinecke to look at original 19th-century photographs of the American West,” Ottenstein said. “Having my work a part of the Western Americana Collection now and knowing that my photographs will be available for future generations to study is tremendously gratifying.”

Though “Eye on the West” shows a small percentage of the Beinecke’s collection of contemporary photography documenting the West, more photographs are available for viewing on an interactive display screen in the exhibition space. This digital component allows visitors to search by geographic region, artist and date.

Miles hopes that the exhibition will inspire viewers to return to the Beinecke to explore the collection further.

“Our collections have grown to number thousands of photographs,” Miles said. “This show is an attempt to expose those collections to the campus, scholars and artists, to say, ‘Look at what’s here, and there’s more: Come look at it in our reading room.’”

Julia Carabatsos | julia.carabatsos@yale.edu