Formal landscape photographs rarely depicted the people who would ultimately re-settle and reshape the west. In this set of contemporary digital photographs, Martina Lopez superimposes anonymous 19th-century portraits over images of fields, mountains, and plains. In the context of this exhibit, these images remind us that photographs of the landscape and settler colonialism are bound together in the history of the American west.
The dream of a self-sufficient agrarian existence, goes back to the beginning of the United States. Some founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that owning and cultivating land was critical to democracy, because self-government requires citizens with property to protect, who are deeply invested in their community. Laws like the Homestead Act in 1862 allowed citizens to claim 160 acres of surveyed government land for living and farming. In some ways, the Homestead Act was an equalizing opportunity: it allowed widows, single women, and immigrants pledging to become citizens to become land owners. The 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment meant that African Americans were also eligible. However, the Homestead Act also perpetuated the removal and genocide of Indigenous populations as settlers were granted lands formerly inhabited by Native Americans.
Lopez’s images encourage us to imagine the stories connecting people and place. The detail of the embossed paper settings evokes a sense of preciousness, a reminder that the people represented mattered. The remaining images of portraits set within landscapes ask the viewer to imagine the people who would have built new lives, homes, and relationships on the land. The result is Lopez’s invitation to consider the ways in which settlers brought their customs to, and made their mark on, the western landscape.