PRINT March 1982


FROM 1867 UNTIL THE end of 1872, Timothy O’Sullivan worked almost exclusively for Clarence King as the photographer attached to “the Geological Explorations of the Fortieth Parallel,” a survey of the Western territories administered by King under a $100,000 appropriation from Congress. O’Sullivan’s only Western expedition not made for King during that period was in 1871, when he accompanied Lt. George Montague Wheeler on a trip across Death Valley and up the Colorado River.

This was unfortunate, for had he been with King that year, O’Sullivan might have had the privilege of meeting Henry Adams, who was at the time the redoubtable editor of The North American Review and holder of the newly created chair in medieval history at Harvard. Adams had been invited to spend a season on the Fortieth Parallel by one of King’s fellow geologists. Thus while O’Sullivan was in southern Colorado, Adams was in the northern part of the state with a group exploring Estes Park. Being a tenderfoot, Adams got lost while trout fishing on his own one day, and when nightfall came, he decided that his mule, being in all probability smarter than he was, would carry him to safety if given its head. The mule carried him to a cabin occupied by King, who became Adams’ lifelong friend.

Though he had considerably less experience of the West than O’Sullivan did, I bring up Adams because he left behind something that O’Sullivan didn’t: a written record of his feelings about the place, the people he met there, and the times in which he lived. King also left us a definite testimony, in which he at one point described his Western experience as follows:

I was delighted to ride thus alone, and expose myself, as one uncovers a sensitized photographic plate, to be influenced; for this is a respite from scientific work, when through months you hold yourself accountable for . . . analyzing, for instituting perpetual comparison, and as it were sharing in the administering of the physical world.1

King’s metaphor is interesting for its implication that a photograph—and by extension, perhaps, a photographer—is a kind of undifferentiated blankness, a tabula rasa susceptible to all impressions but discriminating of none. Because we have so little information about them, even the best of the photographers of the past often seem like this. The photographs are rich, suggestive, poignantly human; yet the personality of the photographer himself remains a blank for us. Sometimes the photographs seem such perfect emblems of the age in which they were made that we can only conclude the photographer must have absorbed the ideas around him the way a negative absorbs impressions of light.

What ideas might O’Sullivan’s photographs be reflecting back to us from the nineteenth century? That’s the question I want to raise here, and I think that answering it ultimately requires a certain willingness to speculate, an imaginative leap beyond the limits to which sound historical research can carry us. The fact is that no amount of scholarly legwork is ever going to track down the origins of O’Sullivan’s pictures. An excellent show of around 200 of these pictures recently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art was accompanied by an equally excellent catalogue, entitled American Frontiers, in which Joel Snyder lamented how often he had to say “probably” or “perhaps” in writing about O’Sullivan’s life. Snyder’s essay is far and away the best thing that’s been written about O’Sullivan. I doubt that anyone will surpass it for a long time. Yet so many mysteries remain, not the least being the photographs themselves.

What do you say about the human presence in a picture such as Pamranaset Lake district, Nevada, 1871, where man is seen to be a kind of lurker in the landscape? Or the figure vaporized in prehistoric steam in Fissure vent of Steamboat Springs, Nevada, 1867? Or the man so utterly alone on the prairie in Ogden, Utah, 1874? In this last picture, as in many others O’Sullivan made—Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Arizona Territory, 1871, for instance—there is a disproportion, a disharmony almost between man and the landscape. I believe that on these pictures O’Sullivan inscribed one of the most important controversies of the age in which he lived, and it is for help in getting at this controversy that I want to turn to Henry Adams. Adams also registered with great sensitivity the rumblings in the earth that O’Sullivan felt. Adams had the largest kind of awareness of his age; yet the written record he produced is at the same time intimate in a way that photographs seldom are—indeed, that few human artifacts of any kind are. Adams had a rare capacity for taking ideas and the implications of history personally, and I think that his writing may therefore shed some light on the personality of Timothy O’Sullivan.

Certainly Adams, like King, was full of ideas which might have imprinted themselves on O’Sullivan. Since Clarence King was the one to whom O’Sullivan was exposed, it is to King’s writings that Joel Snyder turns to try to give voice to O’Sullivan’s photographs in his catalogue essay. It would have been difficult not to be impressed with King, who was only 25 when he proposed his Western survey and was appointed by President Andrew Johnson to head it up. As Adams said of King, “None of his contemporaries had done so much, single-handed, or were likely to leave so deep a trail.”2 One thing King did, in an article entitled “Catastrophism and Evolution,” was to attempt a synthesis of geology with humanity.

This was one of those dazzling leaps of intellect that no thinkers since the 19th century have had self-confidence enough to try, a combination of theology, history, the arts, and science, all of which King had mastered equally with the kind of mental energy that has also not been seen since the Victorian age. King’s theory was that all historical change comes about catastrophically, with great upheavals which force the creatures of the earth either to “change or die.” This King saw as God’s will, the way of Providence, and of Progress. It was an idea that King believed the geological evidence of the Fortieth Parallel would confirm. It was also, as Snyder points out, an idea that offered some needed consolation for the horrors of the Civil War. To a photographer who had photographed the aftermath of some of the war’s bloodiest battles, King’s might well have been an idea with exceptional appeal. Snyder argues forcefully that O’Sullivan’s photographs of the West “share the spirit of Clarence King’s geology and theology.”

I wonder, though. It’s easy to believe that King’s ideas influenced how O’Sullivan looked at the West. But it’s equally clear that that Western landscape made it hard to keep the Divinity in mind. King himself had trouble doing so, as Snyder’s own quotations from King’s writings show. Listen to King’s description of the Shoshone Falls in Idaho, where he and O’Sullivan journeyed together in the summer of 1868:

You ride upon a waste—the pale earth stretched in desolation. Suddenly, you stand upon a brink. As if the earth has yawned, black walls flank the abyss. Deep in the bed a great river fights its way through the labyrinth of blackened ruins, and plunges in foaming whiteness over a cliff of lava. You turn from the brink as from a frightful glimpse of the Inferno, and when you have gone a mile the earth seems to have closed again. Every trace of the cañon has vanished, and the stillness of the desert reigns.

This seems a landscape that even the wrathful God of the Old Testament has forsaken. Yet it was here that O’Sullivan returned six years later, traveling alone for the first and only time, in order to do photographs that were to be, as he must have known, the last he would ever make in the West. I can’t help feeling that what we see in these and O’Sullivan’s other views of the West is the moment at which it is first beginning to dawn on an ordinary man that there might not be any divine presence in nature, any moral order in the universe, after all. King was seeking to restore God to His rightful Heaven, and thereby restore man to his rightful place as God’s highest creation on earth. But it ain’t necessarily so, O’Sullivan’s photographs seem to whisper. They gaze on the obdurate, impassive landscape of the West with an equal impassivity and obduracy of their own.

This is why it is too bad that O’Sullivan missed Adams that summer of ’71. I think he would have found in Adams a kindred spirit, and Adams might have found in him someone to appreciate the paradoxical admiration that Adams had for King. On the one hand, Adams envied King for his capacity to get things done. Adams looked up to anyone with talent and sensibility who could overcome the sort of doubts and misgivings that left Adams himself feeling paralyzed. On the other hand, Adams also identified with King in a curious way—King the Westerner, the man of the American periphery, the wanderer in the wilderness. One of the great ironies of Adams’ autobiography is that he felt that way himself. Adams was the great-grandson of the nation’s second president, the grandson of the sixth, and the son of our Civil War ambassador to England. If he was not in the mainstream of American history, who was? Yet all his life Adams felt as if he were an outsider to both history and the society in which he was born.

Adams felt lost not only in the recent history of the Civil War and the Grant administration, but in history in the larger sense, the almost inconceivably enlarged sense that history was then acquiring. Behind O’Sullivan and King and Adams in the Anglo-American culture of the 19th century stood Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology, published in the 1830s, first suspended the human imagination over the precipice of primeval landscapes like Shoshone Falls. It was by writing an article on Lyell that Adams gained the credentials to be invited to the Fortieth Parallel, and it was in order to refute some of the most unthinkable implications of Lyell’s treatise that Clarence King was developing his theory of catastrophism. What Lyell had dared was a geological concept of time, a great leap backward in history. Until Lyell, the imagination had clung tenaciously to the Bible’s sense of the Past. Nobody had ever stretched the total span of time back further than about 700 centuries. (At one point it had been calculated that God created the world at nine a.m. on October 26, 4004 B.C.) But Lyell had realized that below all the history man had ever seen, there must yawn a chasm of millions of years. With the publication of the Principles of Geology, man’s grasp on the Bible was suddenly loosened. The human imagination fell into the abyss that Lyell had guessed was there.

In the overall scheme of things envisioned by Lyell, man simply could not be the apple of God’s eye which man himself had always supposed he was. In this vast, empty landscape of time, man was a greatly diminished figure. He was the terribly isolated, almost infinitesimal figure, the mere mite, that he usually appears to be in O’Sullivan’s photographs of the West. It is as if O’Sullivan intuited from the physical landscape what others were beginning to conclude from LyeII’s speculations: that human beings were indeed wanderers in a wilderness, in a myriad of time. They were creatures whose own self-consciousness, their very capacity to think, had made them outsiders to both history and nature. Adams came to feel this way, anyhow, under the sway of Lyell and Charles Darwin. It was an uncomfortable feeling, a self-estrangement, as is apparent from Adams’ habit of referring to himself in the third person throughout his autobiography. Adams had a number of ways to avoid the self-identity of saying “I,” one of them being to refer to himself as “Pteraspis,” which was the name for a ganoid ancestor of man long extinct.

After spending eight years gazing into the mysteries of the West, Timothy O’Sullivan became extinct, too. When he returned to Washington at the close of his last expedition in 1874, the prominent career in photography that he had been building since his Civil War days with Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner went into decline. After a job with the Army was lost and a partnership with another photographer failed, O’Sullivan was helped to a Treasury appointment by King. But six months later he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, and while he was convalescing his wife died. Three months after that, he himself died, at age 42. If Adams had known O’Sullivan, I’m sure he would have mourned his passing as he did Clarence King’s later. He might even have written about O’Sullivan, as he did about King. Thus might he have kept O’Sullivan from disappearing so completely into the chasm of time.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr., is currently writing a book on the history of street photography, and is a regular contributor to Artforum.



1. All quotations from Clarence King in this article are taken from American Frontiers: The Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, 1867–1874, selected and written by Joel Snyder, Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1981.

2. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, New York: The Modern Library, 1931, p. 312.