Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) Part Three

Timothy O’Sullivan: Exploring the West

Part Three

The leader of the survey party in charge of the United States Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel (1867-79) was Clarence King, one of the “characters” of the West during its days of being wild, one of the individuals who “made” the region what it is today. But King was neither an outlaw or a settler; he was a scientist and his job was the mapping the 40th Parallel, a 15,000 square mile area–a vast territory and a huge task. Immediately after the Civil War, the wounded nation turned its eyes to the largely unclaimed and unexplored Western territories, a open space untouched by sectarian strife. The King Survey, which took twelve full years, was but one of the Four Great Surveys of the West–the King Survey, the Hayden Survey, the Wheeler Survey, the Powell Survey–following on the heels of previous and smaller explorations, such as the Josiah Whitney’s work in California. These surveys were cloaked in scientific endeavor, which barely concealed the colonial and even imperialistic characteristics of activities that used mapping and assessing of resources as governmental acts of claiming. Surveying, in this case, comes to mean, not just an examination or a measuring of territory, but gazing, in the sense of seeing and scanning, that was part of what art historian Alfred Boime called the “magisterial gaze,” a look of ownership, called a “nationalistic ideology.”

This cool assessing gaze, spanning the big sky and eying the open horizons, also took in the presence of valuable minerals that could be mined, giving the King survey the underpinning of commercialism, concentrating on the hidden wealth that could be uncovered for corporate interests, or as art historian Albert Boime expressed it “..abodes of commerce and the seats of manufactures..” It is no coincidence that these surveys in the West were taking place at the same time the East was expanding industrialization and needed the resources buried in the wilderness. But there are barriers, however nominal, to the project of opening the West to settlement, and that obstacle was the Native American population who lived free on the plains and in the pueblos, thanks to numerous treaties with the overlord, the United States. Before the Civil War, the West was a mythical place, the faraway fantasy where tall tales grew like weeds. The scientific surveys not only ended the enchantment that surrounded the West, they were also harbingers of–not beginnings–ends. Myth would be replaced by facts and the indigenous population would be replaced by sturdy farmers, small town schoolteachers, and ill-tempered lawmen. Clarence King and his survey tools and Timothy O’Sullivan with his camera were part of the process of taking the West, taming through science.

But this Survey, led by King, had a layer unique to the other surveys, for it played a role in the heartfelt and ongoing debate about evolution: the evolution of the earth itself and the evolution of the human being. At the end of the nineteenth century, the culture itself was evolving, moving away from the last years of religiosity and shifting towards a scientific account of the world. The scientific community was transitioning from the belief that whatever happened on earth, past or present or future, were divine acts of God to a view of the world from which God was absent. It was too soon for God to be “dead,” but increasingly science had come to understand that God was something of an absentee landlord and that the earth evolved on its own. By the time King set out on his survey, Charles Darwin’s concept of evolution was largely accepted but the times were transitional and there were respected outliers, whose time had past like Louis Agassiz (1807-1873), who believed that it was God who caused geological changes and upheavals. The history of the earth, Agassiz stated, included “..all these facts in their natural connection proclaim aloud the One God, whom man may know, adore, and love; and Natural History must in good time become the analysis of the thoughts of the Creator of the Universe..”

King had known Agassiz and it was clear by the beginning of the survey that the great scientist was probably the last of his kind to believe that evolution or change was an act of God. But while Agassiz’s creationism was no longer credible, there were several interpretations of evolution. For his part, King believed that a series of catastrophes created the world, a world he wanted to explore and survey. Being raw and untouched, the West was marked by catastrophe and upheaval and the results of catastrophes were easy to see and study. Natural formations in the West, therefore, were more than mere geography, beyond geology, they were signs of disasters of the ancient past. In an 1877 address at the Sheffield Scientific School, “Catastrophism and Evolution,” Clarence King discussed the connection between catastrophism and evolution, the latter, at that time, very much a new and debatable theory put forward by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species (1859). The debate among the scientific community was between the concept of uniformitarianism, which was a theory of gradualism, the idea that was most influential for Darwin, and catastrophism.

In some ways, by believing in catastrophism, King was fighting his own rear-guard battle, but, in the twenty-first century, many scientists are taking a second look at the idea of catastrophes changing the globe. In 1877, he asserted, “Men are born either catastrophists or uniformitarians. you may divided the race into imaginative people who believe in all sorts of impending crises–physical, social and political–and others who anchor they very souls in statu quo.” King’s use of the less familiar “statu quo” is interesting here, because the words come from a longer Latin phrase: in statu quo res erant ante bellum or “in the state in which things were before the war.” Certainly a photographer fresh from the battle fields would have no trouble in believing in catastrophe. And indeed, the very methodical nature of the scientific survey itself was an indication of the government taking up the orderly business of mapping and acquiring information and exploring the West, an endeavor that had been interrupted by the catastrophic upheaval of the war.

Perhaps it is not a case of one theory or another of how the earth was made but more of the current understanding of evolution as a gradual process occasionally punctuated by catastrophes. As King pointed out, it is the catastrophes, such as the Biblical Flood, that are imprinted upon our collect consciousness. Speaking in reference to the catastrophic landscape of California, King remarked, “When compete evidence of the antiquity of man in California and the catastrophes he has survived come to be generally understood, there will ceased to be an wonder that a theory of the destructive in nature is an early, deeply rooted archaic belief, most powerful in its effect on the imagination.” Today there is little argument about King’s description of “..upheaval, by which oceanic beds were lifted up into subsequent land masses..” but his statement “Suddenness, world wide destructiveness are the characteristics of geological changes, as believed in by orthodox catastrophists..” would be tempered by a more nuanced understanding of the distinction between the impact of a volcanic incident and the slow grinding of plate tectonics. Without going any further into nineteenth century scientific debates, it is possible to imagine, as Dingus did, that O’Sullivan photographed the rising faces of mountains so that the façade dominated the frame in order to show, demonstrate, illustrate upheaval or catastrophe, just as the titled camera re-enacts the logic of upheaval.

In a 1982 essay, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces:Landscape/View,” art historian Rosalind Krauss noted the impact of looking at O’Sullivan’s landscapes in their stereographic version. She wrote of the importance the photographers of the nineteenth century attached to the concept of the “view,” or a “point of interest,” which organized the way in which the practice of looking took place. Visually, the immobile body of the spectator, as Krauss pointed out, is projected inward and into the deep space of the image itself. However, as was stated earlier, as often as O’Sullivan ushered the clients into the depthless spaces of the open West, he also blocked access to the distance.


Timothy O’Sullivan. Shoshone Falls. Snake River, Idaho

Krauss argued that the scientific endeavor of the survey photographs should trump the “exhibitionality” effect or the use of the images as stereographs. In other words, discursively speaking, she thought that the purpose (not intention) or destination of the photographs was scientific or documentary, and that they were never destined to be viewed by an audience. But these images would also have been seen as flat photographs in an album and photographic albums of these surveys were in fact circulated or exhibited. In addition, it is difficult to contend that the photographer or the leaders of the surveys O’Sullivan worked on had the distinction between science and exhibit in their minds. Indeed it is probable that O’Sullivan was part of a larger apparatus of acquisition and accumulation of evidence destined to be turned over to the government, the funder and owner, for whatever study or use the patron deemed proper.


Timothy O’Sullivan. Inspiration Rock bearing a Historic Spanish record of the Conquest (1873)

Robin Kelsey noted that on the Wheeler survey, O’Sullivan worked from two cameras, a plate camera that produced a 10X12 image and a stereotype camera that had a 5X8 inch plate. According to Kelsey in his 2003 article, “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey 1871-74,” the photographer saved his stereographic views for river or for “view” scenes with long and deep vistas. However, Kelsey stated that O’Sullivan “refused to provide viewers with several ingredients of he conventional formula, including a gentle recession into space, a penetrating line of slight, adorn or more foreground features of special visual interest. Instead, with almost severe economy he proffered viewers an assemblage of overlapping, sparkly geometric planes.” In addition Kelsey said that in choosing to present the outlines of shapes, O’Sullivan was acting in accordance with the procure of topographers of the era, “graphic visual displays that spurned inessentials, distilled information, and arranged elements for the scrutinized flatness of the page.”

It can be assumed that O’Sullivan would have worked closely with the topographical geologists, all of whom “worked up” a region, which meant created complete record of each region investigated. The photographer would have provided what Kelsey called a “qualitative” analysis of the landscape with images meant to be accompanied by geological notations of rock formations, measurements, minerals on site and so on. The qualitative category, part of a larger archive, was, according to Kelsey, a “hybrid form when the object in the field was or qualitative interest and not portable..” O’Sullivan’s images were but a small part of much larger whole, and indeed, Wheeler’s 1874 acquisitions included “9,000 biological specimens, 20, 155 specimens of mammals, fish, reptiles, and insects, 1, 277 specimens of birds, and 497 lots of geologic and mineralogical specimens.”

O’Sullivan’s survey photographs pose many problems for the contemporary art historians. From an aesthetic perspective, he is making art, being innovative, presenting a unique and innovative vision and suggesting that the camera could be a mobilized machine bowing to the sometimes whimsical will of its operator. From the standpoint of practice, O’Sullivan stretched his instructions, which were to record and to augment actual science with visual information, by actively interpreting the landscape, so alien and strange to his Irish eyes. If, as Kelsey suggests, his images are archival, if only in the sense of being part of an archive, then the exactitude of his work is countered by the willfulness of his compositions and framings. Over and over, we see his denial of foreground or foundation and over and over we are struck by the silhouettes of extreme geology and blunt shapes of young canyons. Certainly, there is the suspicion that O’Sullivan wanted the spectator to be astonished and amazed. Perhaps he sought the drama of the Civil War and the images he made of dead men, sights that would move the viewer to tears or to horror. More prosaically, the photographer was quoted in 1869 in Harpers Weekly as saying, “Place and people are made familiar to us by means of the camera in the hands of skillful operators, who, vying with each other in the excellence of their productions, avail themselves of every opportunity to visit interesting points, and to take care to lose no good chance to scour the country in search of new fields for photographic labor.”

We are left with an archive, works of art, innovative photographs and creative concepts and straightforward records. The oeuvre of Timothy O’Sullivan stops with his short life when he died of a disease that was a plague upon America for many decades, tuberculous. He left us with an impressive body of artistic work and an unresolved mystery concerning the nature of practice and the source of inspiration. Why did he deviate from standard photographic procedure? We have the result but not the answer.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) Part Two

Timothy O’Sullivan: Exploring the West

Part Two

For decades the work of the nineteenth century photographer, Timothy O’Sullivan had been relegated to government archives and he was remembered, it at all, as one of the “operatives” of Matthew Brady and an assistant to Alexander Gardner during the American Civil War. Not until the 1930s was the full extent of O’Sullivan’s contribution to photography recognized and he was separated by the curator of photographer Beaumont Newhall at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from being a mere recorder of reality to the status of an “artist.” It is quite possible to discuss Alexander Gardner within the historical context of purpose driven photography without calling him an “artist” in the modern sense of the word. But to photographer Ansel Adams, who rediscovered O’Sullivan in an old album and to Newhall, O’Sullivan should be set apart from his fellow documenters and his work should be discussed in the context of art. The reasons for their conclusions were because, unlike his counterparts working in the American West, O’Sullivan had significantly deviated from standard compositional strategies and had apparently deliberately made what Adams consider “surrealist” versions of landscape. This new interpretation of a man, who was but one of many photographers hired to do a simple job, record new and alien landscapes for the federal patrons in Washington D. C. and for the taxpayers who were funding these scientific projects was perhaps anachronistic and re-placed the practice of O’Sullivan into an artistic context that may or may not have been appropriate. For decades a series of art historians have been debating the precise place of a body of work apparently resistant to placement.

The work of Timothy O’Sullivan could have been done, and in fact was done, by any number of individuals, young and strong and competent with a camera. After gaining experience in the American Civil War, the group of seasoned photographers, now based close to Washington D. C., shifted gears, as it were, to another more peaceful task: photographing the American West. Previous photographers, such as Carleton Watkins, had worked prolifically before the Civil War in order to advertise the pristine and unknown landscape in Yosemite. But the post-war photography had another role that involved exploration and scientific analysis of a new topography. Through the construction of scenic views, Watkins and his generation essentially tamed Yosemite by making the scenery familiar if inherently spectacular. But the American West was far from tame and far from familiar, even after the astonishment of Yosemite.

The inherent strangeness of the desert landscape, the towering mountains–true mountains–not the rolling green hills of the East, the volcanic grounds smoking and spewing, the surging and thrusting upheavals of rock from ocean bottoms were as alien as landscapes on Mars. To Eastern eyes, accustomed to leafy green trees and modestly rounded rock mounds and agricultural vistas verdant and drenched with spring rains, the startling sight of the vast and empty oceans of sand dunes, punctuated by strangely shaped spiked cacti and dangerous plunges of sheer cliffs were shocking and unexpected. And it should be noted that, in the end, when all the debates around Timothy O’Sullivan have subsided, it is the very novelty of this terrifyingly new landscape that probably challenged and intrigued him, perhaps even forcing him to create a new language to describe and explain new lands, entirely unsuited to conventional artistic responses.


Timothy O’Sullivan. Fissure Vent of Steamboat Springs

O’Sullivan, who seemed to have been a natural leader willing to take on responsibility, accompanied two survey exhibitions, one headed by Clarence King, a scientific survey headed by a civilian, and the other headed by Lieutenant George Wheeler, a military survey with a scientific goal. Both surveys, whether civilian or military, were corporate in nature, paving the way for settlements by cataloguing the resources available to the nation, all the while acting under the auspices of science. As a backdrop to this undramatic business was the doomed culture of the Native Americans, a panorama of tribes and a symphony of languages, some allied, some warring, all obstructing the technological progress signified by the locomotive, the “machine in the garden.” These endangered people were recorded and categorized with the same anthropological seriousness reserved for insect life. The mindsets of the participants in the survey parties probably reflected that of the majority of Americans. Even though a Civil War had just been fought on grounds of morality–slavery could not continue in an ethical nation–there was little empathy for the indigenous inhabitants, who had to be summarily removed to make way for the rapidly expanding ambitions of a maturing nation. Like his former colleagues, A. J. Russell and Alexander Gardner, O’Sullivan was a witness to another turning point in American history: the “winning” of the West. These documentary photographers were probably as sanguine as the other newcomers to the future of the region and assumed that the indigenous inhabitants would simply “vanish.” It is unlikely that O’Sullivan, hardened by a long war, would have wondered much about just where this vanishing point would be.


Timothy O’Sullivan. Pah-Ute (Paiute) Indian group, near Cedar, Utah (1872)

The photographic legacy of Timothy O’Sullivan is perhaps less interesting as evidence or as documents than the environmental conditions for the photographer himself. Faced with unprecedented un-European scenes in the unfamiliar Western territories, O’Sullivan had to find a way to photograph the land in such a way as to convey its inherent uncanniness. It is useful at this point to separate the images made by the survey photographer into non-chronological groupings, which would separate out records made of actual survey work, useful notations for the patron, the United States government, from the two predominate vantage points deployed by O’Sullivan–distanced and up close. In the process of making comparisons between landscape sites–then and now–separated by one hundred years, re-photographer, Rick Dingus discovered, apparently unexpectedly, that on occasion O’Sullivan had tilted his camera and, in the process, upended the spectator’s actual place on the scene and replacing it in the literal image with a skewed (and impossible) vantage point.


Timothy O’Sullivan and Rick Dingus.

Witches Rocks, Weber Valley, Utah, 1869 and 1978

The initial brief of the Rephotographic Survey Project was merely to photograph once again, following in the footsteps of the original photographers of the West, including O’Sullivan. On one hand, the modern photographer in 1977 could see the changes wrought by time; and, on the other hand, Dingus could learn more about the photographic practice of the early photographers. The idea that a photographer might select one vantage point over another would not be unexpected, but the entirely un-nineteenth century act of tilting the heavy wooden camera weighted down by a wet plate was something of a shock. There is no answer as to why O’Sullivan would do such a thing or how titling the composition as an option could have even occurred to him. Thanks to Rick Dingus we know that on occasion, Timothy O’Sullivan did something utterly outside of his own time. It seems highly unlikely that either Adams or Newhall would have known of this camera manipulation by O’Sullivan, but such extreme tilting was certainly worthy of the practice of New Vision Photography of the 1920s.


Timothy O’Sullivan. Inscription Rock, El Morro National Monument (1873)

While other of his photographs seem more conventional, but more often than not, O’Sullivan’s images proved to be unusual. Otherwise unremarkable images become, when rephotographed and compared by Dingus, remarkable. From Dingus, we learned that O’Sullivan photographed mountains from the full frontal position, with the face of the slope taking up all of the frame, leaving little background, cutting off the vistas that existed. The resulting images, lacking all but the most cursory foreground and a paucity of background or surrounding context, were not the result of cropping. Although the tilted camera technique was perhaps the most sensational, it is these frontal contemplations of rock faces, free of the expected repoussior or even middle ground reference, points that are the more striking, because they can be directly compared to conventional landscapes, both paintings and photographs of the nineteenth century. Dingus suggested that these odd angles and extreme close ups by O’Sullivan indicated that the photographer was either interested in or was attempting to provide evidence for the then current theory of catastrophe, that the earth was created, not in a uniform manner, but out of a series of catastrophic events which left behind evidence of geological upheavals. “Catastrophism” was the theory that drove the scientific approach of Clarence King on his survey of the West, a site he believed to have been the result of a series of catastrophes. The idea of a tilted camera mimicking a catastrophe is an intriguing one and may be a bit simplistic, but the mindset of the survey leader, Clarence King, is worth studying.

The third and last post on Timothy O’Sullivan continues the discussion on how his photographs can be viewed and understood.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) Part One

Timothy O’Sullivan: Exploring the West

Part One

In retrospect, it is something of an oddity that twenty-one year old Timothy O’Sullivan was not drafted into the ranks of the Union Army for the American Civil War. After all many young Irishmen, fresh to the shores of their adopted country voluntarily joined the military in hopes of quelling the rising anti-Irish sentiment in the Northeast towards foreigners. But O’Sullivan found another role for himself in the terrible war, as assistant photographer to Alexander Gardner, covering the aftermaths of battles and making a unique record of the waging of the first modern industrialized conflict and it unimaginable costs. The point may seem a small one–O’Sullivan did not fight in the Civil War—but his point of origin is uncertain and it is not known where he was born. At one point, the photographer claimed that he was born in America, but upon his death, his own father noted for the official record that his son, an obscure documenter of the American West, had been born in Ireland. And it seems more than probable that the elder Mr. Sullivan was correct: if Timothy O’Sullivan had been of Irish descent and born in America, he would have been drafted and we would remember the Civil War in a far different fashion. Along with Gardner, O’Sullivan made iconic images, once long-lost and forgotten, of a tragic war are now an indelible part of our national psyche. Only two years later, O’Sullivan embarked upon another groundbreaking journey, going into remote corners of a vast desert territory in the American West, in the employ of a man in search of catastrophes.


Clarence King, Salt Lake City, Utah Camp, October 1868

That man was Clarence King (1842-1901), who had also not served in the military during the Civil War. His reasons for not being a soldier seem to be somewhat different. The facts are sketchy, but, given that this young man was once arrested and charged with being a “draft dodger” and given the fact that the case was dropped, suggest that the wealth and privilege of his family exempted him from service. Although the Civil War was a highly emotional conflict and we remember it as being a morally driven cause on both sides, the actual potential combatants were hardly enthusiastic about serving. Like the Viet Nam war, one hundred years later, the privileged young men could avoid the war, while the lower class males–who really had no economic stakes in play–bore the burden. While O’Sullivan was roaming the killing grounds, Clarence King was studying geology and acquainting himself with the scientific debates of his day. On one hand, King was an intellectual and an academic, on the other hand, he was a bit of an adventurer and a believer in the manifest destiny of America, which would be carried forward on the tracks of railroad lines. The Yale graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School became the leader of the Survey of the 40th Parallel at a time when the surveys of the unchartered sections of the West were transitioning away from the military and into the hands of scientists. The goal was not military conquest but conquest through scientific marking and a study of the geology, the natural resources and mineral wealth that coincidentally lay along the route of the railroad. As King later remarked, “Eighteen sixty-seven marks, in the history of national geological work, a turning point, when the science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country.”

O’Sullivan, an experienced photographer, was, for all intents and purposes, a valuable member of the crew that worked with King. While the scientists and geologists collected specimens and made scientific observations and recordings, the role of the photographer was to make visual records of the typology, the landscape, the vistas, the details of the terrain. It was not his job, for example, to photograph flora and fauna or insects or the animals killed and turned into artifacts. O’Sullivan photographed the land itself and here is where his task transcends mere objective record and metamorphosed into something quite different, resulting in a body of dramatic photographs, flattened vistas composed of shapes and shadows and edges, suggesting to modern eyes an almost abstract view of terrain. Although O’Sullivan worked with King for three seasons from 1867 to 1869, the Survey leader seems to have made sparing use of the photographs which do not seem to have been given any more value than any other artifact collected during the project. O’Sullivan’s work with King was intermittent and he also spent several seasons with the (Lieutenant George) Wheeler Survey of the 100th Meridian during 1874, 1875, and 1876. During his tenure with the Wheeler Survey, O’Sullivan was working with photographer William Bell, who would be given less responsibility than the Irishman, perhaps due to his less experienced status. These images were published in an album, which according to Lauren Higbee in her article on “The Wheeler Album: Photographic Rhetoric and the Politics of Western Expansion,” was a site of political maneuvering amongst the above participants as well as a political toolwielded by Congress to legitimize its policies in post-Civil War America amid a time of great political corruption and upheaval.” Higbee looked at that album as an “exhibition,” if you will, of the government funded project and functioned as both an advertisement of accomplishment and a scientific showcase of an unknown region of the nation.


Timothy O’Sullivan.View of the White House, Ancestral Pueblo Native American (Anasazi) ruins in Canyon de Chelly

In fact, the body of work produced by O’Sullivan faded from memory and was stored away until seventy years later the photographer Ansel Adams stumbled across O’Sullivan’s landscapes. According to a 2008 article by Britt Salvesen, then of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Adams had acquired an 1874 album from Sierra Club officer Francis Farquhar. This album was the Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, a record of Wheeler’s Survey, which O’Sullivan joined between sessions with King. Perhaps the most famous of the images by O’Sullivan was that of Canyon de Chelly, a striking cliff face in New Mexico. Later Adams himself would retrace the footsteps of O’Sullivan and photograph the site from the same vantage point on his own, but formally speaking, O’Sullivan was seen as a precursor of modernism and placed in the emerging photographic canon. Although those art historians who are more interested in historical context and social conditions are less interested in the O’Sullivan-the-modernist narrative, the photographer still holds a privileged place in the photographic pantheon and this elevation is still based upon the striking visual nature of many of his works.


Timothy O’Sullivan. Vermillion Cañon, Colorado (1872)

By the 1930s, photographers were used to skewed views of the landscape, odd oblique camera angles and unexpected vantage points and O’Sullivan’s photographs were seen within this new context, a context that did not exist when he was working for King and later for another military and mapping survey, for Lieutenant George Wheeler in 1869. Adams called the prescient images taken by O’Sullivan to the attention of Beaumont Newhall of the Museum of Modern Art, and Newhall included O’Sullivan in his centenary (and landmark) celebration of photography, “Photography: 1839–1937,” held in the Spring of 1937. Salvesen mentioned that Adams interpreted O’Sullivan’s work in light of Surrealism, a movement now waning. (There was also the body of Surrealist photography that was emerging from this current movement, but the exact reference of Adams is unclear and he probably was speaking metaphorically). Thanks to the newly established department for photography at the Museum there would be a genuine and on-going attempt to build a historical archive for American photography which would lead to previously ignored works being rediscovered and reconsidered, including O’Sullivan, whose work was also admired by Alfred Stieglitz.

Is is unclear, in 1937, the extent to which the full range of the photography of the West was either known or understood, and it is also unclear if Adams or Newhall understood the extent to which O’Sullivan’s work was “strange,”so to speak, compared to his contemporaries. But Adams apparently sensed something different about what O’Sullivan had done for the survey parties and the term “surrealism” became a handy trope to connote the strong and striking difference between these prints on albumen paper and those by William Bell or William Henry Jackson. But to call any of the photographers of the Western surveys “art” photographers would be incorrect. These were professional photographers, hired hands, following instructions, but they had apparently incorporated, if only through a cultural and visual osmosis, the language of landscape painting and the artifices, such as making sure there is a repoussoir in the foreground and a recession into a vast expanse, all framed in a proper Claudian structure, then three hundred years old. Even though photography was supposedly a record of the real, the observed, the devices used by painters to suggest an illusion of depth, were repeated by the landscape photographers who used the known and the familiar to situate the viewer, even, as in the Western views, the scenes were so unfamiliar they bordered on the “surreal.” The extent to which O’Sullivan deviated from the established norm, ignoring all landscape conventions, was noticeable in the late 1930s but it was the work of re-photographer Rick Dingus forty years later that demonstrated the originality of the work of Timothy O’Sullivan.

Headed by Mark Klett, who was working with protohistorian Ellen Manchester, and sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Polaroid Corporation, the Rephotographic Survey Project was active between 1977 and 1979. JoAnn Verburg was the research coordinator who led the photographers, Rick Dingus and Gordon Bushaw to the exact locations–site, time of day, time of year–where nineteenth century photographers, William Henry Jackson, John K. Hillers, Andrew J. Russell, and Timothy O’Sullivan, once stood photographing the West. On the surface, the Rephotographic Survey Project was a simple retracing of the steps of the originators of Western photography to see how the land had changed, had become overgrown by tourism and otherwise modernized or not, but for a photographer, rephotographing these sites was a chance to analyze the decisions made by their precursors. Carleton Watkins, it is well known, established conventional “views” or the best vantage points for the visitor to Yosemite, but the survey photographers were recording a process of scientific investigation–O’Sullivan’s brief–or a period of technological conquest–the work of A. J. Russell, and it was far from certain that their images would ever find their way to a broad public audience. The intended audience was corporate and political and the often pedestrian language of the pictures reflects that expectation on the part of the employers that the images should be descriptive accompaniments to a more precise discussion provided by proper scientists.

Rick Dingus found that O’Sullivan seemed to be working under a different set of instructions, and in doing so he opened up a new discourse on Timothy O’Sullivan, seemingly adding to the thesis of Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall–that Timothy O’Sullivan was a photographic formalist, an abstractionist, avant la lettre. But other perspectives on the photographer would emerge over the ensuing decades. It is these “pure” landscape photographs that are of most interest to historians. But how “pure” are these landscapes by Timothy O’Sullivan?


Witches Rock #1, Timothy O‘Sullivan, 1869; Witches Rock #1, Rick Dingus for the Rephotographic Survey Project, 1978

In his 1994 article, “Territorial Photography,” Joel Snyder noted that the standard and established use of photographs as “integumental likeness–as passive recordings of preexisting sights.” This passivity and mirroring, not just of what could be seen but of what the audience expected to see, responded, Snyder suggested to the expanding interest in documentary photography. The author related how photographers of the West could find an audience to view and to purchase their views, indicating that these operators were aware of the commercial need to please the customers. But Snyder’s point was more subtle than mere horizon of expectations, he was suggesting that photographs were intended to respond to and to create a collective way of seeing, something he called “distributed vision” or “disinterested” seeing that transcended the individual. These conventions of viewing photographs of the West, based on paintings of the past, were augmented by implied promises of new beginnings in a supposedly virgin land, full of possibilities and ripe for exploitation.

But Timothy O’Sullivan produced a body of counter-images, termed by Synder, as “contrainvitational,” expressing the inherent “hostility” of desperate deserts and high hard rocks of the West. If Snyder is correct, we might assume that because his photographs were intended for a more limited audience, O’Sullivan seized the opportunity to photograph the West in a fashion that foregrounded the unknown. This land was, as Snyder put it, “terra incognito, as a world different from ours, unfamiliar, inhospitable, and terrifying.” Snyder concluded: “O’Sullivan’s photographs, then, are not to be understood as scientific documents, but as something like pictorialized ‘No Trespassing’ signs.” Was it the intention of O’Sullivan to create a vision of forbidden places, too dangerous for the tourist, much less the aspiring settler? We know, as Snyder points out that O’Sullivan, as he had done during the Civil War, manipulated the photographic outcome for dramatic effect, highlighting a stray sand dune to suggest an engulfing desert, but how do his actions–carried out in the midst of scientific exhibitions–square with the idea of a truthful survey of unmapped territory?


Desert Sand Hills near the Sink of Carson, Nevada (1867)

The next post will continue to examine the debate around the intentions of Timothy O’Sullivan and the interpretations of his oeuvre.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) The Civil War

Alexander Gardner and the Civil War

Referring of his work as a photographer of the American Civil War, Alexander Gardner said, “It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest.” Sadly, no one wanted to hear of this history and no one wanted to see the images of the conflict that haunted the nation. When Gardner offered his trove of images to Congress in 1869, the legislators refused to purchase this invaluable pictorial record of the war. As with all wars, the nation wanted to return to normal in the aftermath and there was little comprehension that photography might be a significant historical tool.


Plate from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War

Image by Timothy O’Sullivan

Although Alexander Gardner’s name had not been emblazoned on the body of photographic work that examined the War and its toll, he was the individual who carried out the wishes of his employer, Matthew Brady. After viewing the strange and inconclusive encounter between the Federal and Confederate troops at the First Battle of Manassas, hoping to make a profit, Brady decided to “cover” this internal struggle for business purposes. Because Brady could be thought of as an official portrait photographer of President Abraham Lincoln, he had earned special privileges, such as the ear and the trust of the nation’s leader. Although no one knew at the time, it would be an 1864 photograph taken of Lincoln by Brady that appears on the $5 bill today. An long time associate of the President, Brady was granted permission, both by Lincoln and the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, to move about the theater of war freely, not for an official record, but to sell the images to the public. Through Brady, who hired some twenty “operatives,” his assistant, Alexander Gardner and those who worked with him, had practically unfettered access to the war itself. Each operative was provided with a traveling darkroom, a covered wagon full of photographic equipment, pulled by a mule and called a “whatisit?” by the soldiers.


Timothy O’Sullivan. The Photographer’s Wagon (July 1862)

The result of Brady’s organization of the photographic coverage of the Civil War was a massive collection of images, of great historical value. But one hundred and fifty years ago, “history” had a different meaning and the concept of history being recorded photographically was impressive but incomprehensible to the public of the 1860s. Quick to see an opportunity, Brady was capitalized in his venture by a firm, Anthony & Company, which provided the photographic supplies. Despite his fame, Brady had to borrow the equivalent of $100,00 for the four years of the war. The gamble that the public would buy images of the war with the same eagerness shown for portraiture was a risky one and did not pay off. For years after the war, Brady, pressed by his creditors, attempted to sell his work to the government obviously the proper steward of the collection, but Congress repeatedly turned him down. It wasn’t so much lack of interest—even the New York Historical Society attempted to raise funds—it was just that to cover Brady’s debts required a large sum of money for photographs, which as single objects did not have much value. The public did not understand the evidentiary value of Brady’s work during the War. Eventually Anthony & Company obtained one of three sets of the photographs and in 1875 Congress agreed to pay $25,000 for another set. Brady never recovered financially from his investment.


Alexander Gardner

As Alexander Gardner found out, it was safer to work as a free-lance photographer, offering specialized services for particular projects. A Scottish immigrant, the full bearded Gardner must have been thinking seriously about starting his own business for he arranged to become the official embedded photographer working with the union General George McClellan as chief photographer. Indeed, shortly after the terrible battle of Antietam, Gardner, now “Captain,” parted company from Brady, who carried on without his right hand man. In 1863, he opened his own business in Washington, in direct competition with Brady’s studio. According to Roy Meredith, author of the pioneering work Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man (1946), Gardner had run the Washington branch for Brady before he became the official photographer for the Army Secret Service. Interestingly, Gardner’s famous photographs of both the Battles of Gettysburg and Fredericksburg were made while he was working on his own behalf. But off the battlefield, Gardner used the camera to copy maps so that multiple copies could be distributed among the commanders. He also had the interesting task of identifying Confederate spies by using the camera as a surveillance tool, systematically photographing campsites, looking for infiltrators—strangers—who could be identified or not by the officers. Although unsuccessful in the endeavor, this nascent photo surveillance presaged today’s closed circuit cameras mounted throughout all modern cities. Meanwhile, Gardner’s studio, which was across the street from Brady’s establishment, specialized in photographing soldiers who wanted to send images home to their families. This rather simple task was undertaken by his brother, James, allowing Gardner to undertake more jobs for the Secret Service, thanks to his colleague Allan Pinkerton.


Alexander Gardner. Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (February 1865)

The Civil War ended with the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox, Virginia on April 9, 1865. No photographers were present. A few days later President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The War was ended and an old era was over, but the man who had planned to lead the nation into a new way of life without slavey and a national reconciliation was dead. Upon hearing Lincoln vow to give former slaves the right to vote, the famed actor, John Wilkes Booth, decided to murder the President. It is said that it was Lincoln himself who invited Booth to enter his box at the Ford Theater, and although once in the presence of the President, it was easy to shoot him, escaping from the pursuers was far more difficult. When Booth, hampered by a broken leg, was finally run to ground, cowering in a barn in Port Royal, Virginia, the end was quick. According to Edward Doherty, the officer in charge of the pursuit and capture, Booth was attempting to fight his way out when was shot by one of the soldiers. As Doherty wrote in 1867, “..the bullet struck Booth in the back of the head, about an inch below the spot where his shot had entered the head of Mr. Lincoln. Booth asked me by signs to raise his hands. I lifted them up and he gasped, ‘Useless, useless!’ We gave him brandy and water, but he could not swallow it. I sent to Port Royal for a physician, who could do nothing when he came, and at seven o’clock Booth breathed his last. He had on his person a diary, a large bowie knife, two pistols, a compass and a draft on Canada for 60 pounds.” It would be Alexander Gardner who would witness these last sad months of national anguish.

Gardner seemed to have the ability to make connections with the right people was given access to the assassins of the President and to their subsequent executions by hanging. The assassination of a President he had often photographed would have been a shock to the man who had recorded the aging of an anguished leader over during the war years. Although most of Gardner’s photographs (portraits) of the members of the conspiracy to kill Lincoln (and members of his cabinet) are well known and easily accessible, one of these images is missing and is nowhere to be found. According to a 2011 article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Gardner and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan, were summoned to the USS Montauk where the body of the chief conspirator, the actor John Wilkes Booth, had been taken. Under the direction of Stanton, one photograph was taken of the corpse for documentation and as proof that he was dead. Gardner and O’Sullivan were under constant supervision during their task and Gardner later turned the print and the plate over to the Secretary. The image, the plate and all traces of the death of the assassin have since disappeared. For some Booth was a hero and a martyr, and it is possible that Stanton was anticipating a resistance movement from more former Confederates.

Given the dramatic death of Booth, it is understandable that the government went to great lengths to document the final collapse of the last of Confederate resistance to defeat–the trial and execution of Booth’s fellow assassins. Because the careful and colorful descriptions of each individual involved indicate the hunger of the public to know what these people looked like, it is interesting the read newspaper accounts of the conspirators. The written representations of the assassins were attempts to be as precise as a photograph with, of course, editorial embellishments. In their book, Lincoln’s Assassins: Their Trial and Execution (2001), James L. Swanson and Daniel Weinberg noted the colorful prose of the time. David Herold, captured at Garrett’s Farm where Booth was shot was described as appearing “sullen” and as having “a pouty look.” Gardner, working for the Secret Service, under Pinkerton, photographed all the accused, except for Dr. Samuel A Mudd who treated Booth’s broken leg and Mary Surratt, owner of the boarding house where the plotters met, possibly because neither was imprisoned aboard the two ironclad vessels with the others. As Swanson and Weinberg pointed out, at that time it was believed that there was a connection between physical appearance and personal character. Therefore Lewis Powell (Paine or Payne) was written about in a strangely erotic fashion: “He was very tall, with an athletic gladiatorial frame; the tight knit shift which was his upper garment disclosing the massive robustness of animal manhood..”


Alexander Gardner. Lewis Powell (July 1864)

Gardner’s final portraits of the perpetrators were swiftly followed by a last sequence of images recording their demise. The government acted quickly and the day after the sentences were meted out the executions took place. Not all the conspirators were executed. The final selection of those who would die seems, in retrospect, a bit arbitrary: Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt. Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the United States government, is widely considered to be innocent and in a final act of gallantry, and she can be seen in one of Gardner’s photographs, being shielded from the sun with parasol. The prison yard at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. was filled with a thousand spectators, friends and relatives of the guilty, government dignitaries, and fortunate ticket holders. Gardner had a high vantage point which distanced him from the horror that was to take place below, but he was able to photograph the entire event in sequence. The resulting series of the executions included in order: empty scaffold with its four trap doors, the arrival of the condemned, the reading of the charges against them, the last prayers, the final fitting of the nooses around the necks, the moment just before the warden clapped his hands and the traps dropped beneath the feet of the prisoners, and three final images with the bodies hanging for almost a half hour to be sure all were well and truly dead. The sequence ends with a shot of the pine coffins next to the graves, which would be temporary, dug in the prison yard.


Alexander Gardner. Executions of the Assassins of Abraham Lincoln (July 1864)

Although the entire enterprise was under government contract, Gardner was allowed to retain the rights for the images. Nevertheless, despite the public’s interest in the physical appearance of the conspirators, there was little market for their final portraits, but many were eager to purchase the series recording the simultaneous hangings in the hot July of 1864 of the murders of Abraham Lincoln. Two years later, Gardner, hoping to capitalize on what was clearly a groundbreaking contribution to journalism published a very expensive “Sketchbook” of the Civil War, two volumes of fifty photographs each, containing some of the best and the most eloquent images, taken by himself and other former Brady “operatives.” Perhaps in a veiled comment about Brady, who published everything and everyone under his name, Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866) carefully credited the more than ten contributors, including George Bernard and Timothy O’Sullivan.


Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War

Much has been made of the fact that the photographer moved the bodies of the dead, but this artistic activity is instructive in and of itself. The Brady project, which eventually grew to some 10,000 images, was a business enterprise, designed to illustrate or to tell the story of the war. The only models these photographers would have had to consider as a precedent was history painting, and their instinct was to provide a dramatic narrative for the viewer. It is difficult for us today to image the insensitivity of selling a disturbing photograph (often a stereograph) of the face of a dead solider, but it is likely that the faces shown were those of the Confederate fatalities. Any family members were on the other side of the battle lines and it is unlikely any Southerner viewed a dead relative thanks to Matthew Brady’s operatives.


Rearranged body from Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War. Image by Timothy O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner (July 1863)

As was often the case in the first century of photography, the public did not understand what was being offered and Gardner’s extraordinary record of the War languished unsold. Gardner had created an entire history of the bloodiest years of a terrible war and provided the finale, the true end of a desperate time: story of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the execution of his killers. The long Civil War was over. It was time to leave the blood stained battlefields of the East and head West.


The next post will discuss Gardner’s photographs of the Frontier.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Photographing the Seventies: Rephotographing


The leading edges of Postmodernism were architecture and photography and film, all of which moved away from Modernism in the sixties. By the eighties, the shifts seen in these mediums would be characterized as “Postmodernism.” For a variety of complex reasons, the arts in general agreed that one era had ended and that the direction into the future was unclear. Postmodernism can be thought of as a pause to reflect upon the roots of Modernism. Therefore, the decades of the seventies and eighties were decades of art about art. These photographs required a new mode of viewing, not of appreciation for beauty or even of interest, but a way of seeing from the past as commentary.

Photography in the seventies was about photography, or to be more precise about mass media and the “image world.” Because photography was less tied to the art markets and were thrust more into the reality of the everyday, the photographers were more nimble and could move more quickly with the times. Clearly photography was impacted not only by political movements and the movies but also by Conceptual Art in fine arts. By conceptual photography, one means, to put it simply, photography about photography. Conceptual photography cannot be understood unless the viewer knows the point of reference.

By the seventies, the fact that photography became conceptual as is evidenced by the return to the original grounds of American landscape photography: nineteenth century America before it was modernized. These photographers focused, for the most part, on the West, the trope for “America” and the exploration and conquest of the “wilderness” that had to be “tamed” and “won.” It is important to place these photographic projects in a larger intellectual context of cultural critique. During the seventies and eighties the received narratives were being interrogated and American “history” was in the process of being rewritten.

For American photographers the reference point for a re-examination of the making of America would be the supposedly “innocent” survey projects that resulted in the landscape paintings and photographs of the vast vistas of the Land of the Free. The question is—what has happened to the wilderness, to the scenery, to the open spaces? The questions were what is landscape in a post-industrial society? what is landscape in a post-atomic society? With a spirit of detachment and investigation, photographers set out on new surveys, tracing the footsteps of famous photographers into the New West, or sometimes going into dangerous territories that had been “sacrificed” to the Cold War.

By the mid-seventies, these photographic explorations were well underway. In front of the cameras was an altered landscape and behind the camera was a long history of using landscape to craft an identity for the new nation. The photographers referenced their precursors, Thomas Cole, George Innes, Timothy O’Sullivan, Thomas Moran. These artists were also relying on the viewer’s knowledge of the famous photographs of earlier photographers who photographed beautiful scenery beautifully: Ansel Adams and Edmund Weston. The New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition of 1975 at the George Eastman House showed the new photographers of the new “man-altered landscape,” such as Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. This show officially launched the new and critical reinvestigation of an old tradition.

Adams and Baltz presented small black and white images that were as beautiful and as crisp as those of Ansel Adams. However, these images completely lack the rhetoric and the idealism of Moonrise over Hernandez, New Mexico (1941). Adams showed, not the purple mountains majesty, but the mundane barren suburbs of Denver. Baltz showed, not the pristine wilderness of Utah but the destructive building of Park City for a ski resort. Without rhetoric these photographs can be seen as protests against the mass media production of anachronistic images of sublime landscapes of places that no longer exist. Although these images of the sublime can be found in advertising and films, the reality is quite different.

The small black and white photographs of Blatz and Adams chart the growth of suburban tracts in the once pristine West. “I hope that these photographs are sterile, that there’s no emotional content,” Lewis Baltz said. But it is hard to look at his row of pictures of Park City, Utah where the land is abused and raped, its resources exploited in the service of a ski resort for the very rich. This disconcerting lack of center of interest is echoed in the work of Robert Adams, which is also a non-“landscape” landscape, that is, un/pictures/que, raising the question of why was this ordinary place photographed at all? As John Szarkowski, stated, “Adam’s pictures are so civilized, temperate, and exact, eschewing hyperbole, theatrical gestures, moral postures, andespressivo effects generally, that some viewers might find them dull.”

Impacted by the new environmental movement, American Topographics was one of the major photographic attitudes of 1970s, concentrating on measurement of change with an eye to conservation and ecology. Turning away from “America the Beautiful” and reviewing the altered environment with a self-conscious and sophisticated point of view, “Topographics” also implies a newly dead and deadpan look at the world. This new survey is one of the destruction brought about by the arrogance of the Enlightenment and science–a Postmodern “Course of the Empire,” a re-visioning of Thomas Cole two centuries later.

In America, photographers also looked at the impact of the Industrial Revolution upon the environment. the rethinking and re-en-visioning of the land continued with the work of the “Rephotographic Survey Project,” initiated by Ellen Manchester, Mark Klett, and Jo Anne Verberg in the summer of 1977. This fascinating project was one of several re-photographic projects, which produced new photographs of old scenes made famous by nineteenth century photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan. Each photograph by a Re-Photographer was made from the exact camera and lens positions, replicating time of day and point of view of, for example, William Henry Jackson. The Re-Photographs show the impact of time and civilization upon what was once untouched wilderness.

Like the New Topographics approach, the RPS was an attempt to both mark the passage of time and to measure and record the effects of the human being upon the landscape. But beyond the obvious changes, such as telephone lines or new trees, for these photographs of the 1970s echo the grim disillusionment of the period, following the assassinations of the Kennedys and King and the disruptions of the Viet Nam war. The 1970s is a period of withdrawal and disbelief, partly due to the cultural realization that “reality” lies and that photographic media is a propaganda medium. Photography begins to employ the “photograph” ironically and painfully, dismantling its links to fine art and beauty and to idealism and hope. To follow in the footsteps of the early landscape photographers is to follow in the footsteps of American cultural imperialism, to no longer be innocent.

The “landscape” is now suburbia, photographed laconically, in color, by William Eggelston or with an etched acidity in black and white by Lewis Baltz. They follow in the footsteps of Arbus, as well, taking up her quest for the odd and the strange in the midst the normal and everyday, simply by framing and photographing this newly-made world of prefabricated landscape. Adams and Baltz focused on suburban settlements isolated in wide territories and Peter Goin, Richard Misrach and John Pfahl photographed nuclear test sites in the West, still radioactive. These are the Sacrifice Zones.

It is amazing but true, more atomic and hydrogen bombs have been dropped on American and territories than anywhere else. Perhaps because politicians on the east coast did not understand the scenery of the west, these territories were thought to be wastelands of little use. For decades, Nevada was bombed constantly and there are vast stretches in the west that are uninhabitable and will be dangerous for hundreds of years to come. The images of these blasted lands, scored and scarred by weapons, are a shocking counterpart to the west found by Andrew Russell. Here is a strange and almost unreal beauty and teach the viewer to look again and to see this blasted landscape as having its own unexpected sublimity–the terror of John Pfahl’s nuclear plants shining in the rising sun, pumping out suspicious steam, the horror of Peter Goin’s nuclear testing grounds of polluted soil, the shame of Richard Misrach’s killing fields of dead livestock, put to death by nuclear poisons.

Once we raise the issue of what is considered worthy of being photographed and why, the viewer then realizes to what extent the photographers of the New Topographics Movement challenged assumptions about “landscape” and “scenery.” The young photographers looked backward and examined the results of “progress” without the idealism and myth making of their predecessors. They were analytic and critical, re-seeing and re-looking at the American landscape of their own time.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Postmodernism in Photography


Photography became the postmodern art form par excellence, taking the place of painting when the Modernist precepts of European art became exhausted by the 1960s. Unlike painting, photography did not have to grapple with and overcome a high art past, nor was it touched by high art theories. Because photography was, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, The Middle Brow Art, it was ideally suited for Postmodernism to occupy the practice. Even in its virginal state, photography was also impacted by the fact of the “Image World.” As Guy Debord explained it in The Society of the Spectacle,the world had become a “spectacle.”

In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

Therefore, contemporary visual culture was, by definition, a spectacle disseminated though photographic forms, reproductions of reproductions, simulacra of a reality that never existed. Through photography, visual culture had become part of the spectacle of popular culture that fascinated its audience and hypnotized them from critiquing society and created a certain kind of social relation. As Debord said, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” When Debord’s influential book was published in France in 1967, the vernacular photography of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander had exhausted itself. The innocence that had allowed photographer or the audience to assume that direct photography was a reliable form of “truth” was crumbling on the disillusionment of the Viet Nam War.

In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures–pictorial intertextuality. Photography is no longer about capturing realism, as it was in the days of Robert Frank and his followers, but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only fabricate simulacra or record the hyperreal of the Postmodern world. It would be correct to question the term “photography” in the context of Postmodernism. “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. The term “re-photography” would be more precise to describe Postmodern photography.

By the 1970s, photographers were beginning to explore three issues in the discipline. First, “straight photography” and its corollary documentary photography were played out. Second, the “truth” value of photography had been undermined and the role the medium was playing in constructing a particular kind of society—of spectacle and of complacent citizens—was becoming clear. Third, it “straight photography” could be manipulative of society then it would seem that it was once again permissible to manipulate photography. Postmodern photographers would confront these particular conditions during the eighties in a knowing and often highly theoretical fashion.

Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography. The Rephotographic Survey beginning in the 1970s is an example of the postmodern attitude towards the act of photographing by rephotographing the already photographed. The artists participating in this project, Mark Klett, Rick Dingus and Linda Conner, meticulously followed in the footsteps of 19th century photographers of the West, re-photographing the famous photographs: photography about photography. Part of the research of this group was to revisit famous sites in the West, first photographed on Survey excursions by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, was to take note of the changes over the century. But in the process they discovered that the supposed documentation was actually manipulated by O’Sullivan who produced near abstract images through cropping his prints and/or tilting his camera.

Postmodernism is characterized by self-conscious and deliberate intertextuality. One of the best-known photographers who played with simulacra is Cindy Sherman. Sherman should be termed a performance artist who restages images from mass media. Concentrating on how women were represented by movies, she had herself photographed in a series of small black and white photographs called “Film Stills” during the late 1970s. None of these theatrical re-presentations can be traced back to any actual movie but all remind the viewer of movies they have seen or have heard of and evoke the construction of women in the 1940s and 1950s. Sherman is what can be called a “post-feminist,” or an artist who takes up feminist concerns, not from a political and activist perspective but from a theoretical stance. Because society manipulates the social being who is proved to be infinitely malleable, Postmodernism no longer believes in the Modernist possibility of evolution towards a goal. There is only arbitrary change, determined by the dominant class for its own purposes.

All Postmodern theory can do is to point out that gender is constructed by the culture and by mass media. Unlike early feminism of the 1970s, post-feminism is not essentialist but is constructivist, maintaining that there is no such thing as a “women” only an image that is created by ideology and is named “woman” by the culture. Sherman’s Film Stills are pure simulacra: there is no “woman,” there is only the image of woman. A film is an image of an image of a woman. A film still is an image of a woman of an image of a woman of an image of a woman. Simulacra is a “third order” of “reality,” meaning that a simulacra is three moves away from a reality that never existed in the first place. Because Sherman performs a variety of female roles, playing the woman for a male audience, she should be considered a performance artist who photographs her work, rather than as a traditional photographer.

Sherman was not the only photographer to stress the importance of performance and artifice in Modernism, present in Western art since Édouard Manet. Like Sherman, Jeff Wall uses intertextuality by reenacting significant “major monuments” of Modernist art through the Postmodern art of manipulated photography. One of the early users of computer manipulation, Wall, like Sherman, is less a “photographer” in the classical sense, and actually works in the “directorial mode.” His actors perform for Wall in staged photographs representations Manet and Degas and Cézanne. His recreations are subtle. For example The Destroyed Room refers to Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and After Ralph Ellison, showing an African-American man, his back turned to the viewer, is lit by hundreds of lightbulbs, but he remains invisible. Because he is referring to invented works of art, in addition to staging and directing, Wall must manipulate photography. In A Sudden Gust of Wind, Wall uses the computer to throw white sheets of paper into the stiff breeze, combining postmodern technology with the past. Like most Postmodern artists, Postmodern photographers re-explore the past and revisit history. As Wall said in 2010:

In the nineteenth century, with Manet and the others, there was such a high level of pictorial invention, such an interesting take on the now. They created something that is still very important to anyone concerned with pictures, and so, I’m keeping in touch with that, but not in an exclusive way, not as a model for my own work. My work derives from photography also, that is, photography as photography, and from other art forms. But it also comes from things that I’m experiencing directly. So, I’m trying to use the nineteenth century, in a way, as one of the frames of reference for a pictorial practice. We could say that, in many ways, we are still experiencing the nineteenth century in art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]