Picks and Pans Review: Solomon P. Butcher: Photographing the American Dream

updated 02/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by John E. Carter

There's an often evocative, poignant sense of life in these photographs of Nebraskans staring out of the late 19th century into a future they were helping shape with their courage and determination. Butcher was born in Virginia in 1856 and, as much out of desperation as anything, moved to Nebraska in 1880. He was a ne'er-do-well who was less than a success at farming, teaching and marketing his patent-medicine elixir, Butcher's Wonder for the Ages. He didn't even profit from his photographs, most of which show various farm families around Custer County, Nebr. posing in front of homes made of sod and wood. The quality of the pictures and the earnestness of the people in them creates an almost hypnotic state; it's practically impossible to look at them without drifting into reveries about what might have happened to the lovely, smiling little girl in the tattered dress, standing next to her grim-faced parents, or what the old man with white whiskers brandishing a saw had seen in his lifetime. Carter, a curator of photographs at the Nebraska State Historical Society, provides a lively introduction and chooses apt quotations to accompany the photographs. One is from Nebraska-bred Willa Cather's novel My Antonia: "There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: Not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made." (University of Nebraska Press, $28.95)

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