(CNN) -- When discussing his favorite images from the "Greatest Photographs of the American West" traveling photography exhibit, National Museum of Wildlife Art president James McNutt, who curated the exhibit, starts with the oldest: William Henry Jackson's "Mountain of the Holy Cross."
Taken in Colorado on August 24, 1873, the photograph would become as legendary as the mountain itself -- not for the effort it took to get the picture, but for what it signified to a country healing from the Civil War and pushing ever westward.
Hauling hundreds of pounds of photo equipment up to a vantage point on an opposite ridge to capture snow-filled crevasses that created a perfect vertical cross on the mountain face, Jackson produced an image that, according to McNutt's introduction in the exhibit's companion book, came to symbolize "the union of America, Nature and God that fulfilled a romantic destiny."
Jackson's famous shot became one of the country's favorite photographs of the 19th century and effectively introduced photography in the West.
It's just one of the thousands McNutt and his curatorial team of Rich Clarkson, Adam Harris and Kate Brainerd considered from the National Geographic archives when putting together a landmark exhibition that's currently on display at select museums around the country (see below).
The final cut -- winnowed to 185 images for the show and 75 for the award-winning book -- shows the West's myriad faces thematically grouped into Legends, Encounters, Boundaries and Visions, corralling into categories an epic visual record of almost a century and a half of exploration of the American West with the camera.
There are cowboys and debutantes, Northern spotted owls and bison, cityscapes and pueblos, mesas and dams, gathering storms and controlled burns.
From early documentary efforts like Edward S. Curtis' celebrated North American Indian portraits to David Alan Harvey's contemporary impressions of modern Native life, from the pristine glories of awe-inspiring landscapes to the gritty exploitation of the region's resource wealth, McNutt's opus is both a loving gaze at the magnificence that attracts so many to the West, and an unblinking eye on the pressing challenges of keeping the romance alive.
"Greatest Photographs of the American West" 2013 exhibition dates
Booth Western Art Museum, Cartersville, Ga.; through March 10
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyo.; through August 11
National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson Hole, Wyo.; through August 11
Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, N.Y.; through September 15
At the end of summer, the exhibition begins traveling again.
For more information visit www.photographsofthewest.org.
To see the exhibition online visit www.photographsofhewest.org/exhibit.
All "Greatest Photographs of the American West" images above used courtesy of the National Geographic Society.