Select the search type
  • Site
  • Web
Search

The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Photographer Created an Original View of the West

Photographer Created an Original View of the West

Author: Reilly Capps/Wednesday, April 24, 2013/Categories: photography, Archive Pick of the Week

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. 

[Gettysburg, Pa. Bodies of Federal soldiers, killed on July 1, near the McPherson woods]
[Gettysburg]

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.


Print

Number of views (4433)/Comments (0)

Please login or register to post comments.

Name:
Email:
Subject:
Message:
x
Global Temperature Anomalies Thursday, January 4, 20180

Global Temperature Anomalies

Hot & Cold temperatures.

Cyclone Bomb, Grayson Wednesday, January 3, 20180

Cyclone Bomb, Grayson

A super-cold, super-storm is developing.

A Gift of Gratitude Monday, January 1, 20180

A Gift of Gratitude

A new year of gratitude to pass along.

Patagonia and Sustainability Sunday, December 31, 20170

Patagonia and Sustainability

Patagonia shows how to apply sustainability in business practice.
Biomimicry Grows Up Friday, December 29, 20170

Biomimicry Grows Up

The future of biomimicry is here.

Climbing the Wolf's Tooth Thursday, December 28, 20170

Climbing the Wolf's Tooth

A dispatch from Antarctica.

Repairing Cars and Environments Wednesday, December 27, 20170

Repairing Cars and Environments

You can learn a lot about land restoration by looking under a car's "bonnet".
On The Roof Of The World Tuesday, December 26, 20170

On The Roof Of The World

Airglow over Tibet.

Compassion...a new meaning Monday, December 25, 20170

Compassion...a new meaning

Mindfulness and living in this world.

Where Good Ideas Come From Friday, December 22, 20170

Where Good Ideas Come From

A clever storyteller suggests an answer.

in vino veritas Thursday, December 21, 20170

in vino veritas

A perfect example of blending art & science....making wine!

Where the Buffaloes Roamed Wednesday, December 20, 20171

Where the Buffaloes Roamed

Bison were rescued with the first wildlife restoration effort.

Once Extinct, Almost Extinct, Now Back Monday, December 18, 20170

Once Extinct, Almost Extinct, Now Back

Animation can tell a more complex story way than is expected.

Coral Recovery? Saturday, December 16, 20170

Coral Recovery?

If scalable, coral reef restoration opportunities exist.

Bottled Arctic Notes Friday, December 15, 20170

Bottled Arctic Notes

A bottled note tossed to the waves recovered years later.

Be Nice To Nerds Wednesday, December 13, 20170

Be Nice To Nerds

Exploring DARPA's creative research approach.

Mountain Day...Every Day Tuesday, December 12, 20170

Mountain Day...Every Day

Time to celebrate mountains every day.

Small Is Beautiful Monday, December 11, 20170

Small Is Beautiful

Tiny houses meeting your individual needs.