O’Sullivan captures the Wild West

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

Traditional tales of outlaw escapades and cowboy adventures are long forgotten in the hauntingly desolate yet picturesque collection of photographs by Timothy O’ Sullivan currently on exhibit in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. While traveling across of the country from 1867 to 1874 with Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler, O’Sullivan honed his photographer’s eye in the midst of the western terrain. Idaho falls, Colorado peaks, Nevada lakes and Utah canyons all provided fodder for the budding documentary biologist.

The exhibit’s more than 100 photographs transport viewers to an era when both photographs and the hopes of pioneering explorers were black and white. Uninhabited landscapes tell a story of the great wilderness just beginning to be explored by pioneers seeking the promise of open skies. A sense of anticipation and promise emanates from the warmly toned images. Though the focus of the exhibit lies heavily on topography and only shows the rare human, the frames encompass a palpable spirit seeping out from the earth. As viewers walk through the exhibit, they feel as if they are joining O’Sullivan and his cohorts on their Great American Adventure. A sense of newness appears even to modern viewers who believe they have seen everything west of the Mississippi.

In an interview with the Washington Post, exhibit curator Toby Jurovics said that O’Sullivan unlocked the camera’s metaphoric powers.He wasn’t daunted by the fact that nothing’s there,” Jurovics said. Instead of creating welcoming travel photos, O’Sullivan documented only that which appeared in front of him, in all its harsh, intimidating, awe-inspiring glory.

O’Sullivan refuses to bend to the magnanimity of America’s greatest natural wonders, but instead frames them with the dreams of a generation set on conquering the West, as in his “Buttes Near Green River City, 1872.”  The landscape’s off-kilter horizon line does not detract from the butte’s splendor, but it does temper the impact, hiding a natural beauty behind a field of brush and tumbleweeds. The dynamic lines of the butte contrast the blemished ground below it and rise elegantly into the heavy sky.

In an image of Idaho’s Shoshone Falls, however, a long exposure captures the urgent rush of a river flowing over jutted rocks, the energy and confidence of an expanding nation floating in tow. Though the cusp of the falls fill most of the image, O’Sullivan allows a rising mist to encompass the otherwise beautifully defined tide. Rather than framing the rushing waters from a head-on position to capture the full width of the cliff, O’Sullivan merely perches on the water’s edge, seemingly inches from being swept up in the current to expose the maximum energy and power of the water. The way the photographer shows a willingness to immerse himself in the subject yet presents a biological and human-less product displays his affinity for the beauty of Earth’s processes.

Employing the latest photographic technique of the time, O’Sullivan produced his sweeping vistas as albumen silver prints. The egg white solution utilized in the process adds a slight but distinct sheen to the images that seems to enhance to their mysterious quality. ­­­­Unlike other photographers of his time, O’Sullivan set out not to make this new territory seem familiar for Colonials, but instead to caution of the untouched hazards that lay ahead. His scientific approach caught a side of the West rarely seen, one that still causes viewers today to pause and admire the shocking nature that lies just within our reach.