In the fall of 1868, Timothy O'Sullivan peered through the lens of his camera at Shoshone Falls, on Idaho's Snake River, and captured the roaring waterfall with its mist breathtakingly suspended in the air. The moment, says contemporary photographer Thomas Joshua Cooper, was pivotal. Why? Because, as Cooper puts it, O'Sullivan "deliberately altered the emphasis from something descriptive to something contemplative." (Check an audio slideshow of O'Sullivan's work at the bottom of the post with narration from the exhibit's curator)
As a photographer for two of the great surveys of the American West after the Civil War, it was O'Sullivan's job to be descriptive. His assignment between 1867 and 1874 was to photograph areas of the greatest geologic interest—sand dunes in Nevada, river valleys in Colorado, buttes in Wyoming—for scientific and political purposes. And yet O'Sullivan did more than document the geology of the western landscape. He captured the spirit of the American West, by making very artistic choices in where he set his camera and how he framed his shot.
"It is true that O'Sullivan was doing a job," says photographer Martin Stupich. "But because it was him and not somebody else behind the camera, because of the good fortune of it being him, he got it down in a way that has been acknowledged by photography as being really, really right."
Very little is known about the photographer beyond scanty biographical details. O'Sullivan was born in Ireland in 1840 and emigrated with his family to the United States two years later, settling in Staten Island, New York. He shadowed portrait photographer Mathew Brady, who had a studio in New York, and eventually moved to Washington, D.C. He gained some recognition from photographs he took on the battlefield during the Civil War, particularly at Gettysburg, and then participated in geologic surveys. After the surveys, he did some brief government assignments and worked for private photography studios. O'Sullivan died on January 12, 1882, at age 42, from tuberculosis. He and his work were largely forgotten until the 1970s, when he reemerged as an important photographer of his day.
"Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through May 9, is the first major exhibition of O'Sullivan's work in three decades. A collaboration between the American Art Museum and the Library of Congress, the exhibit consists of more than 120 photograph, some of which have been rarely seen by the public since 1876. Also on display are images and observations by six contemporary landscape photographers, including Thomas Joshua Cooper and Martin Stupich, who view O'Sullivan as a pioneer and inspiration.
"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," says Toby Jurovics, curator of the exhibition, on the museum's blog Eye Level. "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."