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]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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