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photo-eye Book Reviews: Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs

Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs.
Published by Nelson Atkins, 2011.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs 
Reviewed by Adam Bell

Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs
Photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Text by Keith Davis and Jane Aspinwall
Nelson Atkins, 2011. Hardbound. 260 pp., illustrated throughout, 7-3/4x2-1/2".

Timothy H. O'Sullivan occupies a complex and fascinating position with photographic history. Although much of his early background remains unknown, his work as part of several U.S. geological surveys in the mid to later 1800s helped establish him as one of the most important photographers of the 19th century. Although admired at the time, his work was rediscovered in the early 20th century and eventually canonized by a new generation of curators and photographers. Produced by Yale University Press and the Nelson-Atkins Museum, with help from Hall Family Foundation, Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs is an absolutely gorgeous book that presents the work O'Sullivan made on the King Survey, but also examines the complex historical, cultural and social context in which the work was created.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Published by Nelson Atkins, 2011.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. Army Topographical Engineers commissioned a series of geological surveys. The purpose of these surveys was to map and explore the western portion of the United States, much of which had been newly acquired from Mexico following the Mexican-American War and from the earlier Louisiana Purchase. The King Survey (1867-72), the first of four major surveys, was specifically tasked with exploring and documenting the Fortieth Parallel – a territory that covered California to Wyoming. Although long inhabited by settlers and Native Americans, the territories and their potential remained largely unknown to the U.S. government. O'Sullivan was a young photographer when he joined the King Survey, but had already established a solid reputation working alongside Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner in the years before, during and after the Civil War.

Although never truly forgotten, the work O'Sullivan created for both the King and later Wheeler surveys was largely limited to governmental archives until the 20th century. While reproduced at the time as lithographs, the work was not recognized as art nor were the actual photographs widely seen. Beginning in the late 1930s when Ansel Adams introduced his work to Beaumont Newhall, O'Sullivan slowly began to enter the photographic canon. Buoyed by the continued support of John Szarkowski and the Museum of Modern Art, O'Sullivan was quickly canonized as a 19th century master and his work was praised for exemplifying photography's capacity to describe the world with beauty and clarity.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Published by Nelson Atkins, 2011.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the canonization of O'Sullivan eventually came under fire. Anyone familiar with the literature of post-modern photography criticism of the 80s, will have read Rosalind Krauss' famous essay "Photography's Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View." In that essay, Krauss attacked MoMA and Szarkowski for distorting the context and meaning of his work. Krauss also expressed deep skepticism about the way in which O'Sullivan's work had been described in purely artistic and 'modernist' terms rather than the scientific or archival terms under which the work had been created. As Keith Davis, the exhibition and book's chief curator and author, argues, Krauss, while not entirely incorrect in her assessment, diminishes the achievements of O'Sullivan. As historians like Joel Snyder countered, there is no reason why we must accept O'Sullivan's work as either strictly documentary or artistic, because they are both. (Davis, 90)

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Published by Nelson Atkins, 2011.
While this academic skirmish may seem tangential to the importance of O'Sullivan and this book, it gets to the heart of why O'Sullivan and his work are of continued importance. Part of what makes photography so interesting is that it is a matrix for so many varying activities and practices from the artistic and personal to scientific and documentary. Seeing how these paths and intentions intersect is endlessly fascinating. One of the many things the book does well is provides an analysis of the complicated circumstances under which O'Sullivan worked, the images were made and geologic survey took place. In praising the photographic achievements of O'Sullivan, the photographer Trevor Paglen states, "Timothy O'Sullivan was also a spy satellite." This seemingly quizzical and provocative statement reminds us not only of O'Sullivan's relationship to the U.S. Army and government, but also to his relationship to technologies of surveillance and imaging that continue into the 21st century (see video below). While O'Sullivan probably never considered himself an artist in the contemporary sense, or a satellite, the images he created are still some of the most remarkable photographs of the 19th century and continue to challenge and confound us.

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, by Timothy H. O'Sullivan. Published by Nelson Atkins, 2011.
From the incredible tri-tone reproductions to the excellent essays, by Davis, Jane Aspinwall the co-curator, Mark Klett and others, this book is a remarkable publication. In addition to the seventy-plus large plates, the book also contains the complete catalogue raisonn√© of the King survey – allowing us to study all the images and follow the development of O'Sullivan's work during the survey. As Davis argues, O'Sullivan’s work is of continued importance not only for the provocative questions his work raises about our understanding of 19th century photography and photography in general, but also because "his work is at once radiantly straightforward and laden with puzzles and anomalies. It is an achievement unlike anyone else's." (Davis, 91) Anyone interested in O'Sullivan, landscape and/or 19th century photography, or the development and exploration of American West should take a look at this beautiful book.—ADAM BELL


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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are adambbell.com and adambellphoto.blogspot.com

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