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 (4344)/Comments (0)

Please login or register to post comments.

Name:
Email:
Subject:
Message:
x
Solarizing South Australia Friday, December 1, 20170

Solarizing South Australia

Renewable electricity power generation took a big leap today.

Volcano May Explode, a timeline update Thursday, November 30, 20170

Volcano May Explode, a timeline update

Bali's Mount Agung could erupt any time.

Your Kids Will Live on Mars Wednesday, November 29, 20170

Your Kids Will Live on Mars

Futurists have always looked to Mars.

Tuesday for Giving Tuesday, November 28, 20170

Tuesday for Giving

3 Suggestions for Giving Tuesday

Rewilding Monday, November 27, 20170

Rewilding

or how a 'silent spring' could turn into a 'wild summer' 
Cancun's Underwater Museum Friday, November 24, 20170

Cancun's Underwater Museum

The sculptor Jason DeCaires Taylor created a unique museum combining art and science in an undersea display.
My Life As A Turkey Thursday, November 23, 20170

My Life As A Turkey

If you thought turkeys were just big butterballs in the Thanksgiving oven, think again.
How the Military Fights Climate Change Monday, November 20, 20170

How the Military Fights Climate Change

The military are proactive on climate change.

Stories to Change 'Apocalypse Fatigue' into Action Saturday, November 18, 20170

Stories to Change 'Apocalypse Fatigue' into Action

Moving away from cliamte fatigue into action.

Trees Before Rain Friday, November 17, 20170

Trees Before Rain

Which came first: trees or rain?

A 'Medicane' Forms Wednesday, November 15, 20170

A 'Medicane' Forms

A medicane heads toward Italy and Greece.

Elon Musk on Solving the Climate Crisis Tuesday, November 14, 20170

Elon Musk on Solving the Climate Crisis

Incentives to solve climate change.

India's 'gas chamber' smog Monday, November 13, 20170

India's 'gas chamber' smog

Toxic smog covers north India.

Why Wildfires Are Now Bigger Saturday, November 11, 20170

Why Wildfires Are Now Bigger

Ecology, forests, and megafires.

Curing Blindness Friday, November 10, 20170

Curing Blindness

Can blindness anywhere be eliminated?

Conserving, the Mother Load Wednesday, November 8, 20170

Conserving, the Mother Load

Trying to avoid another Dust Bowl.

Restoration by Crowdfunding Tuesday, November 7, 20170

Restoration by Crowdfunding

A rare fish is restored and the ecological recovery is a good lesson.
OMG Scans Greenland Glaciers Sunday, November 5, 20170

OMG Scans Greenland Glaciers

Scanning Greenland's ice dynamics.