Curator Keith F. Davis on the Representations of Timothy O’Sullivan’s Camera

The photographs made by Timothy H. O’Sullivan as part of the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, or King Survey (1867-1872), comprise an iconic and richly varied body of work. Of all the photographers who accompanied the Western surveys of this era, O’Sullivan is among most admired, studied and debated.  Keith F. Davis, senior curator of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and co-editor with Jane Aspinwall of the new book Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, agreed to share with us more about the unique place these photographs occupy in the study of photography, and in the process, he gives us insight into his own deep connection to the photographer and his work.



Keith F. Davis—

Timothy H. O’Sullivan is one of those truly rare figures in the history of photography—he is familiar to every beginning student of the subject and he continues to intrigue and challenge the most dedicated scholars. Over time, and with increased study, his work only gets more interesting. In large measure, this is because the issues at the heart of O’Sullivan’s work are also integral to our thinking about the medium itself. O’Sullivan raises fundamental questions about photography and its history: How may (or must?) classic “documentary” photographs be seen in aesthetic terms—-as, in part at least, a product of a personal visual “style”? How can issues of expressive intentionality be separated from those of “mere” contingency and chance? Our understanding of what photographs represent, and thus what they mean, hinge on questions such as these.

I encountered O’Sullivan’s work in 1970, at the very beginning of my serious interest in the medium. O’Sullivan was one of the first nineteenth-century American photographers to be the subject of a major book: James D. Horan’s 334-page monograph, Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer (1966). Just as important, O’Sullivan was a favorite of John Szarkowski’s and thus routinely included in the historical rotations (which I studied closely in the early 1970s) that John oversaw in the Museum of Modern Art’s photography gallery. Szarkowski also included O’Sullivan in his influential book Looking at Photographs (1973).

A major advance in public recognition took place in 1975, with the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Era of Exploration,” which emphasized the individuality of O’Sullivan’s work in relation to that of other western photographers of the 1860-1885 era. This was a landmark show: the first time the work of O’Sullivan, Watkins, Jackson, and others had been displayed together and in such revealing quantity. This was a revelation and made me think about nineteenth-century photography in a significantly new way.

Timothy H. O'Sulivan, Tetiary Conglomerates Utah, 1869. U.S. Geological Survey.

All of this was of keen interest to many in the field: historians, collectors, and—-particularly—artists. It is at least approximately true to say that young photographers of the 1960s largely drew inspiration from 20th century precedents in art and photography, from the 1920s avant-garde to the then-current strains of Pop and Minimal art. While many of these influences continued in the 1970s, a critically important new conceptual model was provided by the 19th century topographic and documentary tradition. Few, if any, young photographers of the 1960s looked hard at the likes of George N. Barnard or Timothy O’Sullivan; in the 1970s, many did. In part, it was the appeal of the photographic purity and transparency of these pictures: the view camera’s inherent precision of description. In addition, the typically cool, laconic, and seemingly “styleless” aesthetic of these works had a strong appeal. The working method of these nineteenth-century photographers seemed to reflect a more direct and egoless kind of approach than that of the key artistic figures of the 20th century. This appearance of “selflessness” elevated worldly fact and the optical-chemical process of the medium itself to a new level of significance. Finally, it was notable that the subjects of these 19th century views were often rather mundane, including elevated views of towns and cities, deserted Civil War battlefields, and geological survey studies. By “rediscovering” this nineteenth-century work through the lens of contemporary art-—that is, in fundamentally aesthetic terms-—photographers of the 1970s forged a new expressive style that drew heavily on the visual traits of an earlier mode of visual fact-gathering.

Specifically, several of the photographers included in the 1975 exhibition “New Topographics”—-for example, Nicholas Nixon, Frank Gohlke, and Robert Adams—took clear inspiration from nineteenth-century precedents. Adams has written eloquently about his special fascination for O’Sullivan.

Rick Dingus for the Rephotographic Survey Project, Witches Rocks, Weber Valley, UT, 1978. Courtesy of Mark Klett.

This was also the era of the Rephotographic Survey Project (1977-79), a collaborative headed by the young photographers Mark Klett, JoAnn Verburg, and Ellen Manchester. The RSP made a systematic effort to explore 19th century western photography “from the ground up,” by locating the exact camera positions used by O’Sullivan,Jackson, and others, and making precisely matching new photographs. Some of the results of over 100 years of time and change were expected: human-caused alterations in the land such as the appearance of settlements, and a valley flooded to form a reservoir. There were also more surprising revelations, including O’Sullivan’s canted view of a geological feature named Witches’ Rocks, in Utah. By tilting his camera some nine degrees from the horizontal, O’Sullivan effectively “misrepresented” his subject: vertical forms were depicted as inclined. This violated a general assumption about nineteenth-century “documentary” photography: the idea that these images could be trusted to reflect some basic set of objective standards and procedures. The “subjectivity” (or casualness?) of O’Sullivan’s photograph problematized the whole notion of historical documentary practice. What had been a rather stodgy and dusty photographic genre a decade earlier was now seen as vastly more complicated and interesting.

The culmination of this initial wave of O’Sullivan interest came in the early 1980s with the publication of two important monographs: Joel Snyder’s American Frontiers (1981) and Rick Dingus’s The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O’Sullivan (1982). These superb studies, very different in approach, remained the key monographic works for many years.

As a topic of serious study, I came to O’Sullivan from an oblique angle, so to speak. I had been friends with Rick Dingus in graduate school, and had followed his work on O’Sullivan with great interest. By 1979, I had begun extensive research on the life and work of George N. Barnard, a professional associate of O’Sullivan’s. Both had been Civil War photographers, with connections to the studios of Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, and engaged in similar kinds of work in the years of the war (1861-65). By studying this period intently through the “lens” of Barnard, my understanding of O’Sullivan was substantially enlarged.

My Barnard work came to culmination in 1990, with a book and traveling exhibition. After several 20th century projects, my research interest returned to 19th century American work. I located one large and strong group of O’Sullivan’s King Survey prints in 1996 and began looking for more. Another significant group was acquired in 1999 and yet another in 2000. With these in hand, the logic of a King Survey project was clear.

Other obligations kept this project on a back burner for a decade, however. These years witnessed another important wave of scholarship on O’Sullivan. Alan Trachtenberg’s chapter on O’Sullivan and the King Survey, in his book Reading American Photographs (1989), marked a major critical advance. Between 2000 and 2010, this was followed by Robin Kelsey’s dissertation, “Photography in the Field: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74” (2000), and book, Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850-1890 (2007); and the work of Toby Jurovics and his team of scholars, Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan (YUP; 2010). I was deeply informed by all this scholarship and shaped our project to complement and add to it.

In the fall of 2011, our book was finally done-—the result, depending on how one does the calculations, of either about two, fifteen, or forty years of effort!


Keith F. Davis is senior curator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, and organizer, with Jane L. Aspinwall, assistant curator, of the  exhibition “Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs.”  This show began at the Art Institute of Chicago, and will be seen next at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, April 7 – August 26, 2012.

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Categories: Author Posts, Books, Museums/Exhibits, Nature, Photography, Yale ARTbooks

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