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From Film to Phone: Shooting the West at the Longmont Museum

From Film to Phone: Shooting the West at the Longmont Museum


The technology photographers used to capture the West

Early photographers carried heavy camera equipment over mountains in order to capture the American West on film. Now, photographers and everyday people have the ability to snap pictures of the landscape on their iPhones. While much of photography has changed over the past decades, photographers Kevin Hoth and Andrew Beckham gathered at the Longmont Museum to explain what has evolved and what remains the same in the event “From Film to Phone: Shooting the West”.

Hoth, a design and digital media studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, experiments with finding something new to add to the conversation of landscape photography each time he takes photos. As a snowboard bum in his 20s, his interest in photography began through his road trips out West. He started hiking with a mirror, propped it up on a rock, and began snapping away.

“I didn’t really know where it was going until I started to connect things that were in front of me with what was behind me,” Hoth said. This became one of his first large projects: “Everywhere And All At Once.”

“I love hiking, I love being in nature, I feel at peace there and I always felt this limitation with photography that’s like you can only get one singular vantage point,” he said. “When I’m out in these places … I can see and feel in 360 degrees, but I can’t take a picture of that, so for me, this was a way to try and get there.”

Hiking into the wilderness with a mirror, one he frequently broke, is oddly reminiscent of the early days of wilderness photography, hiking to remote locations with fragile equipment. 

“They had to bring all of this equipment out with them into the wilderness,” said Jared Thompson, curator of exhibits at the Longmont Museum. “They had to bring a portable dark room, they had to bring these giant cameras, tripods, and then all of the chemicals to develop them on site”.

Referring to the “Picturing the West” exhibit that inspired this conversation between modern photographers of the American West, Thompson explained the importance of photography on people’s outlooks on wilderness throughout time.

“A lot of these photos influenced public perception, so a lot of these images actually shaped the views on the landscape and led to conservation efforts,” he said.

The essence of a landscape

This idea of capturing the essence of a landscape, bringing the viewer closer to the wilderness is shared in Andrew Beckham’s photography. He captures many of his photographs while mountaineering, returning to his studio to enhance the images using tools from the landscape itself.

Recently, he collected mica, an iridescent mineral, from the mountains and ground it up into a powder that could be applied back onto his photographs. In this way, he physically brings the landscape to the viewer.

This nature of impacting an original image to integrate ideas and evoke emotions from the audience is what seems to make Hoth and Beckham’s work stand apart from their predecessors in Western photography.

But, while they do attempt to center the viewer’s experience in their art, Hoth admited that sometimes it feels impossible or wrong to capture natural beauty directly. He told a story of photographing the Grand Canyon and the feeling that it was offensive to take a picture of it straight on.

“So I was at a warming hut, and I saw these feathers kind of hanging in the window, and the Canyon was behind the window and I focused on the feathers and the Canyon was soft,” he said. “You don’t get to see the Canyon sharp, you have to be there and experience it”.

In this way, his altered photographs, through a mirror, and more recently through burning or cutting film as it develops, tell a different story about the landscape. One that does not even attempt to recreate the exact landscape itself.

The two artists concluded by explaining they don’t think augmented reality is threatening their role as photographers, just changing it. Beckham told the story of a climb he did during a storm in which electricity was arching between ice axes.

He was taking photos when this event occurred and when he later downloaded the photos he took that day, there was a set of lines dancing through one of the images.

“That electrical current was not only passing between the climbing tools, but it was passing right through my camera as I was making the image,” Beckham said. “What does it mean to capture and experience even if you don’t know that you are capturing it at the time?”.

Adding multiple dimensions to photos, increasing accessibility, and multiplying the senses reached by a traditionally visual medium, Hoth and Beckham are learning to work with the new tools available to them as they continue to create.

As technology changes, so does art. From the first photographers of the West, who carried equipment across mountains, to today’s artists who snap photos on their cell phones and enhance their shots with new technologies after, it seems that photos of the West have always and will continue to represent their time.


Katie Mackinnon
Katie MacKinnon is a writer striving to build connection through storytelling. She specializes in environmental reporting, always looking to find the human angle and the untold story. She has a passion for local food systems, sustainable agriculture, and environmental justice. When not writing, she can be found reading, sewing, or spending time in the outdoors.

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