By Reilly Capps
Photographers take a lot of things from events and landscapes -- images -- but they can, if they’re good, sometimes give something to those landscapes; meaning.
One of the best examples of this is one of the best photographer of the Civil War, Timothy O'Sullivan.
He spent four horrible years documenting the man-made plague that sowed death across the country in ways that haunt us still today:
[“The Harvest of Death,” Gettysburg, by Timothy O’Sullivan]
Though he probably didn't fight, it's hard to think of this assignment as very much better.
No person can -- or should -- spend that much time as a spectator and documentarian of death. After the war, O’Sullivan accepted a position as an official photographer for a U.S. Geological Expedition to the West. His job was to photograph the West in such a way as to make it enticing to Easterners.
It seems like he succeeded:
[Black Canyon of the Colorado River, in Arizona]
O'Sullivan shows us the West as we've never seen it. You can imagine the pleasure O’Sullivan felt upon escaping the damp hell of the East Coast to the clean bright sunny world of the West, which must have seemed so new and puddle-wonderful. O’Sullivan’s relief and optimism practically shine through in his photographs.
[Canyon de Chelle, Arizona]
In a way, every photograph is a lie of omission, since the photographer is always deciding what to leave out, what to place just beyond the frame. The American West can be a harsh, unforgiving place, where crops don’t grow and sparse grass won’t support many herds of cattle, but O’Sullivan rarely photographs that side of things. He photographs and half-creates a rejuvenating place that must have made a tired nation feel young again.
[Pagosa Springs, Colorado]
This picture, and others like it, though probably posed and carefully framed, is only a lie to a certain extent. He is engaged in is creating meaning, creating a story, a story of monumental possibility and limitless freedom. It’s a story that would draw thousands of young men (and a few women) to the American West. They, too, were often looking for an identity, and many left behind their names and occupations, becoming almost literally a new person.
It wasn’t an easy life, as O’Sulluvan’s photos occasionally show:
[A miner working the Comstock Lode, Nevada]
But how many Americans -- and how many American stories -- would not have been possible without the creation of this mythic west? Would Mark Twain have become Mark Twain if he had stayed Sam Clemens of Missouri, and not ventured out to the mining towns of Nevada? Would Leland Stanford have amounted to anything if he had stayed in New York, and not headed west to California, where a university bears his name?
Without this colossal backdrop, fewer epic stories are possible.
[Inscription Rock, New Mexico]
Of course, those mountains were always there, and would have been there whether O'Sullivan photographed them or not. But they wouldn't have been able to draw settlers and miners and pioneers and dreamers. Mountains are just piles of rocks, invested with no meaning except the meaning we invest in them.
The great poet Sam Walter Foss exclaimed, “Bring me men to match my mountains,” but he had it almost exactly backward. The men (and sometimes women) who came west, as O’Sullivan shows, were already great men. What they needed was a place where they could reinvent themselves. O'Sullivan helped create a destination almost as alluring as Xanadu.
In these photographs, O’Sullivan and others of his era made the West mean something. They turned it into a grand stage on which epic lives played out. They gave the landscape meaning, created a myth, and made possible grand second acts in the lives of despairing Americans, all through the simple act of opening a shutter.