It took Bryan Schutmaat and Ashlyn Davis a year to sift through 100 years of images for their latest book, Islands of the Blest. The work brings together historic photographs of the American west they sourced from the online archives of the Library of Congress and the United States Geological Survey.
Why? They wanted to create an homage to both the photographers who took these photos and the subject of the photos themselves. And for Schutmaat, the book acts as sort of a prelude to his much-praised 2014 tome Grays the Mountain Sends, which saw him photograph the lives of present day western towns that were largely untouched by urban sprawl.
“[Islands] is like this montage of time condensed,” he says. “It goes from exploration to settlement to industrialization. It goes back to the 19th Century doctrine of Manifest Destiny and that philosophy that drove a lot of people.”
Schutmaat and Davis spent weeks on the floors of apartments in Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas arranging printouts of the photos, seeing how they worked together. And it was from this arduous process that the book came together.
“We [went through the archives] state by state and we amassed thousands of images,” Davis adds. “It was really in the editing process that we saw narratives emerging. It was more about the relationship the photos had with each other than sticking to a chronology or a history.”
The result is a tone poem in which photos dating from as far back 1873 sit comfortably beside those from the 1940s. It’s a quiet, even eerie artwork that nods to the early days of the westward expansion of the U.S., and as its title suggests, references the ancient Greek mythological afterlife for fallen heroes, the so-called “fortunate isles.”
Here, it seems the American west acts as a sort of sparse Elysian field, one in which the landscape itself is a character: “The [people] aren’t the narrative focus,” Davis continues. “They become like ghosts, lingering.”
Though what is most interesting, perhaps, is that the book presents us with photographs that are publicly available and yet are probably unknown to many. Likewise, the photographers and subjects, too, are largely forgotten.
“I like to think of it as [a] poetic mining of a collective archive,” Davis adds. “These are the people who went west. We are getting this arc of the settling of the west and, in a way, the American dream.”
Richard Conway is reporter/producer for TIME LightBox