As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, but is it worth thousands of miles?
That was the challenge posed to early professional photographers in Washington State as they were tasked with creating photography of the region so stunning it would motivate people from miles away to pack up and head West to plant roots.
A new exhibit opening Sat., Sept. 22 at the Washington State History Museum explores these alluring photos, which helped drive opportunity-seeking settlers to the region. Entitled “Click! Classic Photographs from Washington,” the collection includes more than 40 large print black and white photographs that showcase how the state of Washington was visually promoted, packaged and sold during the crucial early industrial period. The images also show how photographers represented the increasing diversity of Washington to other Washingtonians. Perhaps the photos worked: Washington’s population tripled between 1890 and 1920.
During the Westward expansion, photographers often presented an idealized image of the region to promote settlement, as captured in the vast images ranging from “Smoke and Steam,” a shot of a passenger train bound for King Street Station on the North Pacific Railway, to “Picking Hops,” a postcard image of families working the field that was sold to local tourists. In addition to the print photos, the exhibit will also showcase early photography equipment, including famed Northwest photographer Asahel Curtis’s view camera and glass plate negatives.
“These were the days before light filters, auto-correct and Instagram, when photographers relied solely on their raw talent and rudimentary equipment to create these fascinating images,” said Jennifer Kilmer, the director of the Washington State Historical Society. “This exhibit is especially close to us because we pulled almost exclusively from our collections to show a visual history of Washington, and how it was revealed to the nation at the turn of the century through photographs.”
The exhibit focuses on the burgeoning early industrial society, local communities and thriving farmlands across Washington that were being propagated during the early 1900s. They collectively showcase some of the state’s most prominent artists, including Edward Curtis, Asahel Curtis, Darius Kinsey, and Samuel Gay Morse. In addition, a supplemental section explores experimental and expressive works produced later in the century, such as prints from Tacoma photographer Virna Haffer.
The exhibit runs through May 5, 2013 and hours are Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended hours and free admission every third Thursday, 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. General admission is $9.50 for adults; $7 for seniors; $7 students and military with valid ID; children, age 5 and below, and members are always free.
More information is online at WashingtonHistory.org.