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O’Sullivan gets his due

4 March, 2010

Few photographers were as influential in as Timothy O’Sullivan, and up until now there has never been an exhibition to match the nineteenth-century giant’s stature and importance. Curator Toby Jurovics has remedied that in what has to be the best exhibition of the year so far. His Framing the West, now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, presents the geological survey photographs O’Sullivan made for the King and Wheeler surveys in the late 1860s and early 1870s.

‘Geological survey’ may sound dry, but O’Sullivan’s photographs were anything but. The idea behind the surveys was to create scientific records of the American west – the areas that had become part of the country after the Louisiana Purchase and the Spanish-American War. The distances covered were vast, and one of the wonders of the exhibition is how O’Sullivan chose to shoot what he did from the thousands of possible vistas. The survey teams covered thousands of miles, which O’Sullivan captured in just a few dozen frames – how did he decide what was worth recording? And then, when his photographs finally made it back east to their intended audience, how did the pictures help viewers understand the poorly mapped and poorly documented center of the country?

The fact that they exist at all is a minor miracle. O’Sullivan photographed with wet-plate collodion, meaning he had to bring raw sheets of glass out into the field with him for preparation on the spot. These were extraordinarily heavy and had to be bought in the city, so a cart and mule team had to be dedicated just to carrying the photographer’s plates. At a time when few roads existed in the west, and considering they were mapping canyons, cliffs, gullies, mountains, and other almost impassable features, this was unimaginably difficult, and it is hardly surprising to note that O’Sullivan lost plates – and mules – when they tumbled down a sheer drop. But transporting the glass was only part of the challenge. To make a picture, he had to set up a darkroom on the spot, coating, exposing, and developing his plates in short order. Conditions were dry, dusty, and often searing hot. Water for washing and mixing was not always convenient.

But what incredible pictures he made under these conditions. O’Sullivan has always been highly regarded for his visual sophistication, and the SAAM exhibition showcases this beautifully. The pictures are so esoteric and expressive, at times it’s hard to imagine they were useful as survey pictures at all. One of O’Sullivan’s signatures was his skies. Working at a time when photographic emulsions were over-sensitive to UV light, the skies in landscape photographs usually came out overexposed. In the final print, this meant they looked blank – the corresponding areas of the negatives were super-saturated and dark. Most photographers of the period responded by composite printing clouds into the skies artificially – combining two negatives to create an effect that looked real even if it was just a simulation. O’Sullivan didn’t do that. He treated the bleached out skies as powerful graphic elements, creating marvelous shapes and layering lights and darks to make pictures that look surprisingly modern. Like Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, they form flat planes of tone that give the works a forward-looking, abstract quality.

The piece de resistance of this work is the sequence O’Sullivan made from the riverbed of Black Cañon of the Colorado River (now flooded by the Hoover Dam), which has influenced generations of landscape photographers. In these, frame after frame contain bold graphic compositions in which sky, sea, and land seemingly collide together in ingenious cascades. In the exhibition, Toby hangs these together as a grid – the effect of seeing a wall of this imaginative and deeply original work is breathtaking.

One of the most poignant passages appears in two parts. O’Sullivan visited and photographed Shoshonee Falls in Idaho twice in his career, the last not long before his death from tuberculosis at age 42. It was clearly a spot that called to him, and the photographs he made on each occasion were keenly seen and acutely felt. In the exhibition, they are installed in separate sections.

As a student, I remember the Victoria & Albert Museum’s senior photo curator Mark Haworth-Booth showing me a letter from Ansel Adams talking about nineteenth-century landscape photographers like O’Sullivan, saying ‘the old boys knew a thing or two about photography.’ I always remember that – it was high praise from him. (Adams was also talking about Camille Silvy, the early French photographer Mark has done so much with.) This exhibition makes clear what Ansel was talking about.

Everything about the show hits the perfect note. It is hard to imagine how the wall colors, selection, spacing, sequencing, text, frames, and the light-handed but meaningful integration of related works by contemporary artists and curators such as Mark Ruwedel, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Edward Ranney, and Terry Toedtemeier could be improved. There is a sensational catalogue available on Yale University Press, with essays by Toby, Glenn Willumson, Carol Johnson, and William Stapp. It is essential reading, but see the show if you can. The original prints, subtle and rich in detail, have to be seen to be believed.

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