Just the words "the American West" bespeak boundless possibility.

The American West of myth is home to vast expanses, lonely cowboys, lost lands, glamour, riches and natural beauty. It's a place where there is enough space and enough potential to hold any dream. Then there's the underbelly _ porn stars, Vegas strippers, sprawl, disintegration. In spots, the land is literally crumbling and the current reality of the American West is glaring: This is what the land of infinite possibility has become.

Highlighting both the myth and reality, the guiding premise of "Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West," opening Sunday at the Museum of Modern Art, is that photography's rise in use and popularity in the 1800s coincided with western migration. As an emerging form of both art and documentation, photography had the unique chance to construct how the world understood a vast space as it was being discovered and immeasurably helped to build the legend of the West.

This non-chronological exhibit, which includes many of the big names of the photography world plus some, spans 1850 to 2008. From Ansel Adams' serene "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941) to Katy Grannan's tortured portrait "Nicole, Crissy Field Parking Lot (I)" (2006), this comprehensive series of photos highlights the ways in which we have conquered and been conquered by this space.

"These are the pictures that the grand narratives of the West have been spun," associate curator Eva Respini writes.

Along with creating these "grand narratives" of Hollywood stardom, gold-rush riches and suburban bliss to name a few, these photos tackle a massive geographical space stretching from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and north from Canada to south, along the Mexican border.

How can this space be encapsulated?

How can a camera lens pick out and convey what the West is and what it means to live in it?

By creating iconic images that are intimately related to the space of the West.

Richard Avedon's 1983 portrait of an out-of-work blackjack dealer in Reno is made more powerful because of what the subject does and where he does it. Nevada, the land of luck and riches, but also the inevitable bust.

While the exhibit dabbles in questions of identity as it relates to the region _ particularly James Luna's series of three self-portraits "Half Indian/Half Mexican" (1991) _ the real point to this satisfying exhibit seems to be not "This is who we are" but rather "What are we pioneering now?"

"Into the Sunset: Photography's Image of the American West" will be on view through June 8.

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