Though photographers Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams were contemporaries and longtime friends, most of their work portrays contrasting subject matter. Lange’s artistic photodocumentation set a new aesthetic standard for social commentary; Adams lit up nature’s wonders with an unfailing eye and preeminent technical skill. That they joined together to photograph Mormons in Utah in the early 1950s for Life magazine may come as a surprise.
In a Rugged Land examines the history and content of the two photographers’ forgotten collaboration Three Mormon Towns. Looking at Adams’s and Lange’s photographs, extant letters, and personal memories, the book provides a window into an important moment in their careers and seeks to understand why a project that once held such promise ended in disillusionment and is now little more than a footnote in their illustrative biographies. Swensen’s in-depth research and interpretation helps make sense of what they did and places their efforts alongside others who were also exploring the particular qualities of the Mormon village at that time.
James R. Swensen is an associate professor of art history and the history of photography at Brigham Young University. He is the author of Picturing Migrants: The Grapes of Wrath and New Deal Documentary Photography and the recipient of the 2016–2019 Butler Young Scholar Award from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.
Praise and Reviews:
“High-echelon photo-journalism isn't what's thought of in the work of Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. Yet the Three Mormon Towns project is that—and more. Two confident veteran photographers in 1954 went in, captured remarkable images, crafted a story for Life, roiled the rural Mormon residents who opened their doors, and stirred a hornet's nest that affected the later work of each artist. James Swensen's study is a wondrous testament to the sometimes fearsome consequence of fieldwork and the costs of collaboration.”
—Paul Starrs, author of Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West
“Although this collaborative project is not well known today, it illuminates a pivotal era in the history of rural Utah and Mormonism and showcases the immense talent of Adams and Lange. Three Mormon Towns deserves to be remembered and commemorated. Thanks to this book it will be.”
—Brian Q. Cannon, coauthor of The Awkward State of Utah