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.

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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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