Mining the Archive

T.H. O’Sullivan, Virginia City Mine (c.1869).

In the late summer the party stopped off at Virginia City, that high-riding boom town where the mounds of whiskey bottles were as high as a cabin’s roof. There were a few muddy streets, clapboard houses, and plenty of hard-drinking, hard-rock miners with money in their pockets from working the Comstock Lode. Here in this sprawling bonanza O’Sullivan made photographic history. He carried his equipment down “several hundred feet below sunlight” to photograph the inside of the mine, using a pile of magnesium as a flashgun.

O’Sullivan wasn’t the first to take a picture underground—Charles Waldeck of Cincinnati did this the year before in the Mammoth Cave—but O’Sullivan was the first to take the interior of a mine. The photographs are remarkably clear, the flare of the bright magnesium catching the miner, pick in hand, working on a vein. Above his head is a stub of a candle stuck in a beam.

It is obvious O’Sullivan took these pictures at great personal risk. Surely he knew that the flare of the unpredictable magnesium hundreds of feet deep in the bowels of the Comstock Lode could touch off a pocket of inflammable gas, killing them all and collapsing one of the richest silver mines in the world . . .

James D. Horan, Timothy Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer 159-160 (1966).

Horan fails to explain why the flame of the candle used by the miner would be any less dangerous than a magnesium flash. Further, it seems that one could make the argument that simply living in the American west during the nineteenth century was risky. The glorification of a romanticized West doesn’t really tell us much about this photograph or the conditions of its production. There are far more interesting questions.

One of the major puzzles regarding O’Sullivan is the stark contrast between the seemingly flawless careful and considered manner of his compositions and his proclivity for being careless about defacing his negatives with numbers and other identifying marks scratched directly into the negatives—a practice not taken up by his contemporaries such as Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson. His work was sold in carefully printed portfolios to a select audience and yet his treatment of his negatives seems at best careless. Clearly, his priorities were different from many of his contemporaries.

O’Sullivan worked on both the King and Wheeler Surveys, side by side with scientists and illustrators. He seems to have been more influenced by the former than the latter. The question of influence is thorny.

In more recent decades, the notion that O’Sullivan was an intuitive precursor has received a chilly reception in the academy, as scholars have become skeptical about claims of historical prolepsis and less interested in the notion of formal experimentation per se. Although this contextualist turn has soundly reminded us to pay careful attention to the actual circumstances of production and reception, the distinctiveness of these photographs as pictures has never received an adequate historical account. If the modernists have suppressed the governing circumstances of O’Sullivan’s practice, the contextualists have suppressed his puzzling pictorial choices. Weaving together the emphases of both camps may yield a more compelling understanding not only of how O’Sullivan approached his work but also of how his work performed its instrumental and ideological functions.

Robin E. Kelsey, “Viewing the archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s photographs for the Wheeler survey, 1871-74”

Kelsey is troubled by much of the surviving evidence from the Wheeler Survey, because it falls short of the sort of precision demanded by sciences as well as being somewhat clumsy from a purely technical/aesthetic standpoint. The complexity involved in these discussions is hard to circumvent; on one level the photographs produced during the surveys were artifacts of the same class as a stuffed specimen of a mammal, or a jar of mineral specimens. On the other hand, they are the products of both an institutionally sanction, politically driven expedition in a time of shifting aesthetic conventions. In short, there is a rhetoric of science and a rhetoric of art balanced alongside a political rhetoric each time an image was catalogued and filed. The questions are at once specific to O’Sullivan and pertinent to any discussion of landscape photography in the late nineteenth century

. . .the argument presented here raises general issues about the study of nineteenth-century expedition photography. One issue is whether it is time to move away from the long-standing concern with locating this category of practice relative to the changing historical border between art and science. Such attempts have tended to neglect the complex visual culture of the latter and the role of rhetoric in its ongoing constitution as well as to superimpose a discourse belonging to salon reviews and amateur photography journals on a distant photographic domain.

A second issue is whether the moment has come to bring more nuance and historical specificity to the intersection of United States expeditionary practices and larger ideological operations of nationalism and Manifest Destiny. While efforts at establishing the very fact of such an intersection have been necessary, scholarship in the field has at times fostered the impression that photographic practices proceeded in lockstep conformity to an evolving national ideology. However much one may want to resist a resubscription to the notion of photographer as author, the practices of particular expeditionary photographers were very differently situated in the political fabric.

Robin E. Kelsey, “Viewing the archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s photographs for the Wheeler survey, 1871-74”

Kelsey’s points are strong ones: Survey photography is not merely the anonymous hand of ideology carving up the landscape into usable chunks. The “objectivity” of science and rules of evidence remain poorly studied, while the proliferation of cultural approaches has increased the superimposition of popular discourse and attitudes on the work of the Surveys. The passage from Horan that I quoted about the mining photograph at the top of this post demonstrates the difficulties introduced by heroizing the photographer as “author” of his images, but, as Kesley notes, the particular conditions of influence under which these “authors” worked is certainly important in making sense of their work.