T.H. O’Sullivan

T.H. O’Sullivan, Soda Lake, Carson Desert. (1867).

The nineteenth century believed—as perhaps at bottom we still believe—that the photograph did not lie. The photographers themselves, struggling to overcome the inherent distortions of their medium, knew that the claim, strictly speaking, was false; yet, with skill and patience and some luck, the camera could be made to tell the truth, a kind of truth that seemed—rightly or not—to transcend personal opinion.

What was new in the work of the frontier photographers grew in part from this faith that what a good photograph said was true, and that what was true was both relevant and interesting. It is difficult to imagine a painter of the period being satisfied with a picture so starkly simple in concept and image as Timothy O’Sullivan’s Soda Lake. But we are convinced that this is the way the place was. Sharing O’Sullivan’s faith in the magic of the camera, we find the picture’s emptiness eloquent; this minimal image hints of a new sense of scale between man and earth. Mark Twain had crossed the same country six years earlier, in 1861, and he saw a similar picture: “. . .there is not a sound—not a sigh—not a whisper—not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or a distant pipe of a bird—not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air.”

Of the half-dozen photographers who worked with the Government Surveys (geographical and geological) of 1867 to 1879, T.H. O’Sullivan was perhaps the one with the purest, the most consistent, and the most inventive vision. Nevertheless, the general level of the Surveys’ photography was remarkably high. With no academic authority looking over his shoulder, the photographer was free to give his camera its head, free to discover how it could see most clearly. At best, his solutions were original, functional, and uncomplicated by concern for artistic fashions. He was true to the essential character of his medium, and true also to the requirements of his job. His primary aim was not to philosophize about nature, but to describe the terrain. The West was a place to span with railroads, to dig for gold and silver, to graze cattle, or perhaps sell groceries and whiskey. Occasionally—and remarkably—an especially extravagant sample of spectacular landscape would be set aside, sacrosanct, for the amazement of posterity, but this was neither the first function, nor the first interest, of the Surveys.

John Szarkowski, Introduction. The Photographer and the American Landscape (1963).

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The Photographer and the American Landscape

After the Civil War, Americans turned again to the exploration of their continent, especially of the exciting and little known West. One of the tools of their exploration was photography, which was still new.

The photographer-as-explorer was a new kind of picture maker: part scientist, part reporter, and part artist. He was challenged by a wild and incredible landscape, inaccessible to the anthropocentric tradition of landscape painting, and by a difficult and refractory craft. He was protected from academic theories and artistic postures by his isolation, and by the difficulty of his labors. Simultaneously exploring a new subject and a new medium, he made new pictures, which were objective, non anecdotal, and radically photographic.

This work was the beginning of a continuing, inventive, indigenous tradition, a tradition motivated by the desire to explore and understand the natural site.

John Szarkowski, The Photographer and the American Landscape (1963)

Szarkowski’s introduction to the minimal exhibition catalogue for 1963’s The Photographer and the American Landscape bothers me on multiple levels. Most of what he says would seem to be a given (at least in the popular imagination). But at its core it is absurdly nationalistic and built from a curious set of premises. I feel like I have to think it through one paragraph at a time.

It seems fair to assert that the Civil War imposed a hiatus on American expansionism; I am less certain that a case can be made that photography was a “tool of exploration”—in this context, most critics of the 80s and 90s have treated it as a tool of exploitation. The truth is likely in between. What seems even more dubious is the assertion that photography was “still new.” Opening on the note of hiatus implicates photography as more than an instrument—it presides over the phoenix-like rebirth of a new country engineered through new medium.

The “photographer-as-explorer” was the new Moses, leading art into the salvation of a new art. The first key thought is new.

The second key thought is America. Photographic exploration was indigenous to America, and inextricably tied to images of nature. It seems really odd that it took around twenty years before this sort of thinking got challenged; it is naïve at best—but at worst, it obscures the idea that photography was only one of the technologies that imaged and imagined the West. Throughout, a third key thought—the myth of nature— lurks behind as the end of all the labors of civilized culture. A nice place to visit, but not many would continue to live there after the ebullience of the late nineteenth century.