Picturing the Century

Portfolio: Walter Lubken

From 1903 to 1917, Walter J. Lubken (1881-1960) was an official photographer for the U.S. Reclamation Service (USRS). During these years, Lubken took thousands of photographs documenting the Reclamation Service's irrigation projects across the American West. He recorded the progress of construction projects as well as USRS machinery and personnel. The agency also asked Lubken to photograph nearby towns and farms for a series of articles designed to promote settlement on land reclaimed from the desert through irrigation. Traveling with his large camera and glass-plate negatives, he documented 25 projects in 17 Western States. After leaving the Reclamation Service in 1917, Lubken left professional photography until the 1930s, when he photographed the building of Boulder Dam.

Lubken's photographs capture both engineering feats and everyday life in the early- 20th-century West. His optimistic images impress the viewer with the technological and social advances made by westerners. They make the point that progress and community had come to isolated, formerly barren places, and that abundant opportunities awaited those willing to move west and work hard on the reclaimed land.

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