How The West Was Framed: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan

There hasn't been a major exhibition of the works by nineteenth-century photographer Timothy H. O'Sullivan in more than thirty years, but thanks to a collaboration between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Library of Congress, all that changes this week in a big way with the opening of the exhibition Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan. In fact, many of these prints haven't been exhibited since 1876. O'Sullivan was the photographer on two of the most important Western surveys that followed the Civil War: the King survey of the Fortieth Parallel, and the Wheeler survey West of the One-Hundredth Meridian. We sat down with Toby Jurovics, exhibition curator and curator of photography at American Art, to get a little background.

Eye Level: O'Sullivan was born in 1840. What do we know about his early life?

Toby Jurovics: To be honest, not very much. In terms of biography, we still know very little about him beyond where he was born and roughly where he lived as a child. He was born in Ireland, came to the United States when he was two, his family eventually settling in Staten Island. But even though there’s not a lot of detail here, we do know the history of the Civil War and the western surveys. And most importantly, we have his photographs. Even in the absence of much biographical material, we can still discern what his pictures mean by looking carefully at them.

EL: O'Sullivan's name appears in the pantheon of well-known photographers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. How does O'Sullivan fit in?

TJ: He is believed to have gotten his start in the New York studio of Mathew Brady, but we’re not 100 percent certain of that. What we do know is that he came to Washington to work with Alexander Gardner, who managed Brady's studio in the capital. When Gardner opened his own studio in 1862 or 1863, O’Sullivan came along with him. O'Sullivan first gained recognition for images he made during the Civil War, particularly those from the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, forty-four of his images were published in Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War.

EL: O'Sullivan's landscapes have a different quality than those of his contemporaries. Why?

TJ: I think partly this is a result of the places he went. The King survey started out in the Great Basin, and the Great Basin does not have much in common with the landscape of the East Coast. There’s nothing you can do to turn it into that kind of vision. There were other photographers working in the West at the same time, Carlton Watkins in particular, whose studio was in San Francisco. When Yosemite Valley was discovered it immediately became a tourist attraction and was likened to an American Eden. Watkins's photographs reflect this idea. They trade on traditional visual motifs that Yosemite Valley and its meadows and waterfalls easily fit within. You go out to the Great Basin, and it’s just empty.

The important thing about O'Sullivan is that this is a person who spent three years during the Civil War and seven years in the West with his head under a dark cloth making pictures. There’s an intimacy in the creation of his photographs that goes beyond being an agent for a scientific purpose or government agenda, or making photographs as a hired documentarian. At the end of the day, it comes down to a single person with a camera making decisions, and the ones O'Sullivan made were pretty interesting. What you can tell about O’Sullivan is that he had very different ideas about how to structure his photographs. If you put one hundred nineteenth-century photographs in a box, you can pull out the O'Sullivans pretty easily.

EL: O'Sullivan was a pioneer in the early history of American photography. How do we look at works created nearly one hundred and fifty years ago?

TJ: Do pictures mean the same thing in 2010 as they did in 1876? Of course they don’t. We have a good sense of what his images meant at the time, and why they were important. But what makes them perhaps even more interesting is to recognize that O'Sullivan's pictures weren't just cast in amber a century ago. Rather, his images became one of the most vital and viable influences on contemporary landscape photography from the 1970s forward.

EL: The exhibition also contains observations by six contemporary photographers. What's their role?

TJ: One of the things that interested me about O'Sullivan is that when I spoke to contemporary photographers about their influences, the name that always came to the top was O’Sullivan's. In the exhibition there are six photographs by contemporary photographers along with their observations about how O'Sullivan made pictures that speak both to his singular understanding of the landscapes of the West as well as his influence on later picture makers.

EL: Can you give me an example?

TJ: You are in this landscape—the Wheeler survey alone covered 360,000 square miles—and have to figure out how to put that into an 10 x 12 inch sheet of glass. What are you able to distill from a place? And I think when you look at O'Sullivan's pictures, it is always very clear why he made the exposure that he did—why he chose that place and not one ten feet to the right or left. I don’t think he knew how to make a bad picture; they just don’t exist.

EL: Thank you, Toby Jurovics. We'll see you at the exhibition!

To learn more about O'Sullivan and his work, view a slide show from the exhibition, watch a video podcast, or explore and add your own images to our Timothy H. O'Sullivan Flickr group, visit our exhibition page. On February 25 join artist Thomas Joshua Cooper and Toby Jurovics for a conversation about O’Sullivan’s images of Shoshone Falls, and Cooper's images made at Snake River. And, on April 9, join us for a symposium about nineteenth-century western exploration, photographic practice in the post-Civil War West, wet-plate photography in the field, and the parallel tradition of landscape painting.