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.