Long before casino junkets, the Sundance Film Festival, and luxurious ski vacations, the American West between California and the Great Plains was an alien and forbidding land. In Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, the visionary 19th-century photographer shows the wide and weird West through his magnetic and complex photos taken on the landmark King Survey.
O’Sullivan learned his craft in the offices of noted photographers Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner but cut his teeth during the American Civil War, where he took powerful and gruesome photos, including the gory aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. His ability to take superb photos in a pinch won him the title of photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel led by Clarence King.
In 1867, only two years after the conclusion of the Civil War and two years before the opening of the First Transcontinental Railroad, the King Survey set out from California to document the geology, topography, life (human, plant, and animal), and resources of an 800-mile swath of land from the California border east through Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming. O’Sullivan, tasked with documenting the landscape and life of the West, didn’t merely document: he gave his photos life by incorporating existential and self-referential themes. In his photo Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada, 1868, O’Sullivan showed his mobile darkroom overtaken by the desert—his footsteps in the sand already fading away.
O’Sullivan, ever flexible as a photographer, was fascinated by the silver mines of the Comstock Lode in western Nevada. In Virginia City Mine, Cave-in, ca. 1867-1868, he showed the chaos and destruction of a mine collapse, emphasizing people over machines or process.
The exhibition opens this Saturday and includes over 70 photographs taken over the course of the multi-year survey.
—Carl K., Public Affairs and Communications Assistant