Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Glacial lake in the summit region of the Uinta Mountains of Utah. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

Viewing Porter and Powell made me interested in giving a good look at the recent Timothy H. O’Sullivan book of King Survey photographs. The King Survey predated Powell’s voyage down the Colorado by a few years and really set the standard for how the United States would go about filling in the holes in its maps.

This book includes samples of the other material generated by the geological surveys—drawings, etchings, writings, and specimen collection—and does a food job at explaining who the audience for the surveys actually was (Washington) as well as how they were meant to be used. In addition to encouraging the settlement and exploration of the West, these surveys were supposed to encourage repeated exploration and knowledge gathering—the USGS came out of these surveys and both King and Powell served as head of the organization.*

*Speaking of which, the USGS photo archives are pretty cool and include all the O’Sullivan King Survey photos.

Unlike the Powell survey though, the King survey already included a lot of territory which humans had begun to settle. Trains and mines are already in the landscape. As are Indians. That said, while the signs of taming the area are showing but this is still terra incognito.

I can see why O’Sullivan is referenced as the benchmark for landscape photos in the American West. His approach is still very much the kind of thing I find myself doing. Hike out someplace “untouched.” Photograph along the hike and around anything which looks interesting—especially if you can get to a mountaintop or catch sight of a distinctive geologic formation. The clear, clean documentary approach very much describes Ansel Adams. And we all know how many people are following in those footprints.

Sand dunes on the east of side of the Truckee Desert in Nevada. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

That O’Sullivan has a good eye for composition is why his photos stand on their own as art photographs instead of just being documentary work. To the point where it seems like many people forget the original function of the photos. Many of the essays in the book reference and offer interpretations for why he included himself or his gear so often in the photo. The obvious geological survey explanation is that he’s including whatever is handy for scale—though it’s noticeable that the elements aren’t just tossed in haphazardly and often work with the composition instead. But it seems we all too easily reach for artspeak and artistic intent while forgetting to remember the obvious.

The book also includes a complete collection of his plates as sort of a contact sheet for the entire survey. Viewing these shows how O’Sullivan approached landmarks and tried to photograph from all sides. In many ways they remind me of Ansel Adams’s Sierra Club proof albums. Not all photos are “keepers” but as a group, the describe the scene and show how he approached it. This kind of insight into the process is especially interesting and is another reminder that when they say that “film is cheap,” they mean that you should feel free to approach and work a scene. This isn’t spray and pray but it’s not trying to only take the one best shot either.

Green River Canyons: Upper Canyon, Great Bend, Uinta Mountains, Horseshoe Bend, and Green River below the bend, viewed from Flaming Gorge Ridge. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

Mark Klett’s essay in particular takes this process and expands it. As he was rephotographing O Sullivan, Klett is able to show how photos are linked by being taken from the same vantage point. It’s easy to see how O Sullivan approached photographing landmarks. It’s a lot harder to link photos taken from the same vista point but in different directions. Klett, by traveling to the locations, is able to link frames together in ways which cannot be seen from the prints alone.

Rephotographing also provides a comparison with how the landscape has changed. The story of the West is about development and indeed, many of the rephotographs show development of some sort. Some wild land is now just the view from a parking lot. Other views have transformed from canyons to reservoirs. But it’s not all human encroachment. Mining camps are now abandoned and empty.

Quartz mill near Virginia City, Nevada. Photo by T.H. O'Sullivan. U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (King Survey).

I also can’t help seeing the O’Sullivan photos and reading about Klett’s rephotographing without thinking of Ruwedal. So much of what we initially used to conquer the West is now obsolete. O’Sullivan’s photos show the lay of the land before we had a chance to really mess with it. Ruwedal’s show how it’s recovering after we’ve moved on. Much of the West is still open and empty and it’s taken only a century to obliterate most of our presence there.

For all the environmental damage that followed our settlement of the West, an awful lot of it still looks the same even after we’ve had our way with the land.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

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