Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan

This is an albumen print of a water fall by O'Sullivan

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho, View Across Top of Falls, 1874, albumen print, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882) was a photographer for two of the most ambitious geographical surveys of the nineteenth century. He traversed the mountain and desert regions of the western United States under the command of Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler for six seasons between 1867 and 1874. O’Sullivan developed a forthright and rigorous style in response to the landscapes of the American West, and returned to Washington, D.C. with hundreds of photographs that revealed an artist whose reach far surpassed the demands of practical documentation. He created a body of work that was without precedent in its visual and emotional complexity, while simultaneously meeting the needs of scientific investigation and western expansion.


This exhibition—a collaboration between the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Library of Congress—offers a critical reevaluation of his images and the conditions under which they were made, as well as an examination of their continued importance in the photographic canon. Of all his colleagues, O'Sullivan has maintained the strongest influence on contemporary practice, and observations about his images by six contemporary landscape photographers—Thomas Joshua Cooper, Eric Paddock, Edward Ranney, Mark Ruwedel, Martin Stupich, and Terry Toedtemeier—contribute to the exhibition and catalogue.

Framing the West is the first major exhibition devoted to this remarkable photographer in almost three decades and features more than 120 photographs and stereo cards by O'Sullivan, including a notable group of King Survey photographs from the Library of Congress that rarely have been on public display since 1876.

Toby Jurovics, curator for photography, organized the exhibition. For more of Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photographs from the collections of the Library of Congress and Smithsonian American Art Museum, see our Flickr

Visiting Information

February 12, 2010 May 8, 2010
Open Daily, 11:30 a.m.–7:00 p.m
Free Admission


Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan
Few photographers have captured more compelling images of the untamed American West than Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Trained under Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, O’Sullivan accompanied two government surveys of the West in the 1860s and 1870s with geologist Clarence King and Lieutenant George M. Wheeler. Along these journeys, O’Sullivan produced photographs that exhibit a forthright and rigorous style formed in response to the landscapes he encountered. Faced with challenging terrain and lacking previous photographic examples on which to rely, O’Sullivan created a body of work that was without precedent in its visual and emotional complexities.


Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in cooperation with the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. with support from the Robert S. and Grayce B. Kerr Foundation, the William W. Parker Fund, Paul Sack, the Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund, Michael Wilson and the Smithsonian’s Scholarly Studies Program. 


Timothy H. O’Sullivan
born Ireland 1840-died New York City 1882

O'Sullivan began his photography career as an apprentice in Mathew Brady's Fulton Street gallery in New York City and then moved on to the Washington, D.C., branch managed by Alexander Gardner.