Viewing the archive: Timothy O'Sullivan's photographs for the Wheeler survey, 1871-74.

Author:Kelsey, Robin E.

When Beaumont Newhall, at the urging of Ansel Adams, brought survey photography into the Museum of Modern Art, he implicitly heralded the work of Timothy H. O'Sullivan (1840-1882) as a harbinger of modernism. In the years following the Civil War, O'Sullivan had taken photographs of the American West on two surveys supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers, one led by Clarence King and the other by Lt. George M. Wheeler. Even a glance at Ancient Ruins in the Canon de Chelle, N.M., a photograph included in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark exhibition of photography in 1937, helps to explain Newhall's enthusiasm: the picture features stark geometric relations, radical value contrasts, instances of insistent planarity and graphic reduction, and other qualities in keeping with a modernist sensibility (Fig. 1). (1) In more recent decades, the notion that O'Sullivan was an intuitive precursor has received a chilly reception in the academy, as scholars have become skeptical about claims of historical prolepsis and less interested in the notion of formal experimentation per se. (2) Although this contextualist turn has soundly reminded us to pay careful attention to the actual circumstances of production and reception, the distinctiveness of these photographs as pictures has never received an adequate historical account. If the modernists have suppressed the governing circumstances of O'Sullivan's practice, the contextualists have suppressed his puzzling pictorial choices. Weaving together the emphases of both camps may yield a more compelling understanding not only of how O'Sullivan approached his work but also of how his work performed its instrumental and ideological functions.

Focusing on photographs from the Wheeler survey, this essay considers the possibility that O'Sullivan fashioned his unusual images by inflecting pictorial conventions with values and strategies drawn from the survey visual culture in which his practice was embedded. Borrowing graphic possibilities from the work of geologists, topographers, and other survey specialists, O'Sullivan devised a specialized pictorial rhetoric to persuade viewers that the survey was securing practical gains in knowledge and that his medium could take part in this effort. In particular, his photographs conveyed assurances that the survey was translating the West into legible graphic materials that could facilitate resource extraction, military control, and scientific understanding. O'Sullivan, however, did not always abide strictly by the demands of this representational program. At times, he struck a skeptical note, making pictures that called into question the capacity of photography to deliver epistemological gain.

The basic history of O'Sullivan's employment on the Wheeler survey is readily established from United States Army records. He and other personnel assembled in Halleck Station, Nevada, on May 9, 1871, to begin nearly seven months of travel across vast stretches of the West. He took wet-plate photographs in the field using two cameras, a full-plate camera producing a single image on a 10-by-12-inch plate, and a stereographic camera producing two 5-by-4-inch images on a 5-by-8-inch plate. The full-plate negatives and prints made from them were usually called landscape views and the stereoscopic negatives and prints stereoscopic views. Approximately one hundred full-plate negatives and sixty stereoscopic negatives from 1871 remain in the National Archives, and the original number would not have been much greater. (3) Thus, O'Sullivan, under whatever guidance or instruction, undoubtedly selected his views with care. Approximately one-third of the landscape views depict mining sites or towns (Fig. 2), one-third, landscape or river scenes (Fig. 3), one-sixth, military forts, and the rest, sundry subjects, including camp scenes, American Indians, geologic formations, and nongeologic specimens. The stereoscopic views were mostly of scenes along the Colorado River.

In 1872, when Congress was slow to provide Wheeler more funds, O'Sullivan received permission to return to work for Clarence King, under whom he had already served for three field seasons. (4) Then in 1873 and 1874, the photographer went back to work for Wheeler, traveling and taking pictures mainly in what is now the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States. In 1873, nearly half of the stereoscopic negatives represented American Indians or their residences, and many of the full-plate views depicted the rock walls of EI Morro ("Inscription Rock") or Canyon de Chelly (Fig. 1). The pictures from 1874 were heavily weighted toward views of Shoshone Falls. After the 1874 field season, O'Sullivan remained in the East, working for Wheeler under contract for much of the next two years.

Photography as Graphic Practice

A comparison between the photograph Snow Peaks, Bull Run Mining District, Nevada (Fig. 2) and a topographic sketch from a survey field notebook (Fig. 4) provides an introduction to the visual affinities that link O'Sullivan's distinctive pictorial approach to the priorities and tactics of other survey specialists. With its refined curves, flattened spaces, and featureless, tree-dotted slopes, Snow Peaks departed markedly from the prevailing American landscape conventions of the 1870s. In making it, O'Sullivan refused to provide viewers with several ingredients of the conventional formula, including a gentle recession into space, a penetrating line of sight, and one or more foreground features of special visual interest. Instead, with almost severe economy he proffered viewers an assemblage of overlapping, starkly geometric planes. Although reference to contemporaneous paintings or aesthetic theories cannot adequately explain this departure from pictorial norms, the comparison between the photograph and the topographic sketch opens up a promising approach. The qualities that distinguish Snow Peaks from conventional landscapes of the period correspond to the graphic habits of other survey specialists. To represent terrain, topographers routinely preferred the delineation of slopes flat to the notebook page to depictions of atmospheric or perspectival recession, and O'Sullivan's emphasis on the crisp planes and morphological outlines of the West suggest that he may have adopted this preference. More generally, various survey specialists, whether topographers, geologists, or botanists, sought graphic visual displays that spurned inessentials, distilled information, and arranged elements for the scrutinized flatness of the page. O'Sullivan's photographs exhibited a kindred set of values.


The germane evidence indicates that this visual affinity between O'Sullivan's photographs and other graphic materials stemmed from his extensive involvement in the survey as both process and project. He was intricately engaged in a broad array of survey operations and had manifold reasons for thinking of his practice as analogous to other modes of recording and display.

From the early days of the survey, O'Sullivan's responsibilities in the field extended well beyond his role as photographer. The expeditionary culture placed a premium on competence, endurance, and reliability, and personnel who demonstrated these traits received commands that exceeded their designated expertise. To cover vast areas of terrain, Wheeler had to divide his expeditionary force into multiple parties, one led by him, the others by these especially trusted personnel. The lieutenant immediately attributed to O'Sullivan the requisite potential for leadership: only six days out of Halleck Station in May 1871, he gave him "co-equal powers of authority" over the operations of a side party that had been exclusively entrusted to the geologist G. K. Gilbert. (5) Later in the season he put O'Sullivan in charge of one of his three riverboats on the journey up the Colorado, and in subsequent years he often assigned the photographer to head small reconnaissance parties for weeks at a time. In his field orders, Wheeler explicitly extended authority and responsibility for the maintenance of military discipline to his designated agents, and O'Sullivan evidently took up this duty without hesitation. When a hired guide abandoned the party and then returned, he was tied up, and one member of the party, the artist Alexander H. Wyant, wrote in his diary, "Just what O'Sullivan will do with the poor devil I don't know." (6)

In short, unlike many artists, journalists, and some photographers who accompanied Western expeditions, O'Sullivan occupied a position of leadership that immersed him in the everyday activities of survey work. The photographer William Bell, for example, who replaced O'Sullivan on the Wheeler survey for the 1872 season, had no such broad involvement. When Bell joined Wheeler, the lieutenant, as though conscious of the extraordinary precedent that O'Sullivan had set, proclaimed that the new photographer would "perform only those duties belonging to his special avocation." (7)

O'Sullivan's experience as a supervisor in the field would have not only acquainted him with the survey's coordinated efforts and overall aims but also invited him to consider his practice in relation to other technical or scientific modes of apprehending the West. All specialists on the expeditions were engaged in collecting information, impressions, or specimens from traversed regions, and photography was, from this point of view, simply one of several modes of acquisition.

We have only meager textual evidence of O'Sullivan's own understanding of his photographic practice, but that evidence tends to confirm that he understood survey photography as a mode of labor, one of many ways of working in the field. The main textual source is an essay entitled "Photographs from the High Rockies" published in Harper's in 1869. (8) The authorship of the essay is a conundrum; it is attributed in the magazine to a "John Samson," yet...

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