The photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) are currently on display at the American Art Museum in Washington D.C., in a retrospective entitled Framing the West. The exhibit focuses on photographs taken during a surveying expedition through the American West, led by geologist Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler between 1867 and 1874.
Richard B. Woodward’s review of the exhibit in The Wall Street Journal offers a detailed account of O’Sullivan’s life and an explanation of why his work is still of interest:
Unarty artfulness is O’Sullivan’s strength. His candor in depicting how unpicturesque but absorbing much of the world is—if only our hearts would admit what our eyes tell us—elevates him above all other 19th-century landscape photographers in some minds. His willingness to record the flat, barren, rocky scrub of the Great American Desert and other commonplace subjects was reflected in the matter-of-fact aesthetic of New Topographics in the 1970s, and through them in the astringent pictures of the Düsseldorf school. Robert Adams, for one, has often cited O’Sullivan’s resourceful treatment of unpreposesssing material as decisive for his own approach to viewing America.
Click here for the entire review.
Included in the exhibition is a selection of images by Thomas Joshua Cooper and other American landscape photographers who cite O’Sullivan as an influence. Cooper traveled to Shoshone Falls in southern Idaho in the late 90s in direct response to O’Sullivan’s work there 130 years prior. The juxtaposition of the work of these two photographers shows a place that appears frozen in time, seemingly completely unmarred by the Industrial Revolution that so drastically altered the country. Cooper’s photographs, both elegant and mysterious, give the Falls an otherworldly quality, elevating them to a mythical stature that befits the American West and its enduring place in our imagination.
Radius Books will release a book of Cooper’s photographs from his trip to Shoshone Falls this fall, printed in lush tri-tone, and with a major essay by Toby Jurovics, the Smithsonian curator responsible for the O’Sullivan retrospective. The book will reproduce eighteen photographs by Cooper in tandem with eight images by O’Sullivan.
Read more about the upcoming book here.