Part 2 – Landscape as Journey
Project : Surveys
Exercise 2:1 – Territorial Photography
Read an essay by Joel Snyder in Mitchell, W.J.T. (ed) (2002)Landscape and Power, Chicago. The University of Chicago Press. Summarise key points then find and evaluate two photographs by any of the photographers Snyder mentions.
The book was first published in 1994 and was said to reshape the direction of landscape studies by looking at landscape not as something to be seen or a text to be read but as an instrument of cultural force, a central tool in the creation of national and social identities. Joel Snyder is a photographer and member of the art History faculty at the University of Chicago. Expert in the history of photography, and the theory of photograph and film. His aims in this essay are:-
- To probe the motivating factors behind two American western landscape practices of the 1860s and 1870s in order to come to some understanding of why these photographic landscapes look the way they do.
- To emphasize the specificity of approaches to photographic landscape in the period between 1860 and 1880
I’m presuming that it also forms part of the ongoing debate about the nature of photography and whether it is Science or Art and, if the latter, what fits into what genre and why plus should it appear in the Gallery or a Museum. I am also viewing it in relation to the essay by Rosalind Krauss Photography’s Discursive Spaces(1982) which I wrote about here
Snyder gives a brief history of Photography’s early development up to the late 1850s and I have summarized these by creating a force field analysis – it’s quite basic but working at it helped to get timeline changes in my head.
Snyder goes on to further explore two differing American landscape practices through case studies of Carleton Watkins and Timothy 0’Sullivan and the role each of them played as photographers with exploration surveys in the American west.
Carleton Watkins and Yosemite
Carleton Watkins acquired photography skills when he was taken on to work in a San Francisco Studio two years after travelling there in the hopes of finding gold. He travelled to Yosemite and produced some of the first photographs seen in the East. Subsequently Watkins worked on commission for the California State Geological Survey, mining and lumber interests and, by the 1860s, for the Pacific railroads. Within his images he harmonized the landscape with industrial progress – playing man-made designs against the natural environment in his compositions; reducing highlights and shadows to a smooth continuum or producing rich mid-tones.
Watkins’s audience were encouraged to see the land as a site for potential development whilst being offered reassurance that it could withstand endless mass migration and industrial exploitation. There was no recognition of the land’s original inhabitants who lived in mean reservations away from it.
Watkins combined technical excellence with conventions derived from picturesque and sublime modes of landscape depiction. He was emulated by nearly every important photographer of the American West up to and including Ansel Adams and thus set the standard for commercial landscape photographers of the American West. Neither Watkins nor his audience thought of his work in terms of art-historical analysis and there was no recognition that he might have created his images to produce particular impressions in viewers. His images were instrumental in the fight to preserve Yosemite as a national park and one of its many mountains is named Mount Watkins in his honour.
(Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Valley 1865)
A rolling landscape, harmonious tones, soft water reflections. Depicting a place where the visitor could sit and contemplate peaceful surroundings.
Much less is known about Timothy O’Sullivan, although he is known to have worked for Matthew Brady, one of the earliest American photographers, as a teenager. He was subsequently commissioned in the Union Army then rejoined Brady’s team after his honourable discharge. Following this he followed John Pope’s Northern Virginia Campaign and subsequently had photographs published in the first Civil War photographs collection after joining another studio – that of Alexander Gardner, who published the Collection. It has been written that O’Sullivan moved beyond traditional war images, which usually portrayed armies at rest to capture instead the grim and gruesome realities of armed warfare.
From 1867 to 1869, O’Sullivan was the official photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, under the direction of A.A. Humphreys by Clarence King, his job being to photograph the West to attract settlers. O’Sullivan later acted as photographer with the team searching for a canal route in Panama and was subsequently associated with a series of surveys in the southwestern United States, during which time he also photographed Native Americans. On his return East he was appointed first photographer for the newly established United States Geological Survey and, in 1880, on the recommendations of Brady, King and Gardner, was appointed chief photographer for the Department of the Treasury. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 42.
This website notes that “More so than other western expeditionary photographers, Timothy O’Sullivan explored alternative strategies of photographic composition …… through the conscious ordering and visual presentation of bold forms, which emphasized the abstract qualities of the landscape.”
Snyder describes O’Sullivan’s work as being ‘singular’ as opposed to that of other Western photographers as his images portray a bleak, inhospitable and god-forsaken land.
I have previously written here concerning Rosalind Krauss’s 1982 analysis of O’Sullivan’s photographs in relation to her criticism of the way in which photography historians in the 1980s were attempting to disassemble and then reassemble the photographic archive. She compares a print of a photograph (1868) and a lithographic copy of it produced for a book, Clarence King’s Systematic Geology (1878) asserting that the print belongs to science whereas the photograph operates with 19tcentury discourse – itself organized around an exhibition space – its wall. Her view was that O’Sullivan was a maker of scientific “views” and not of landscapes.
Joel Snyder refers to Krauss’s view in his essay and states that it is correct if the claim is that O’Sullivan did not conceive of his work in the same way, but Krauss claims that the scientific nature of O’Sullivan’s photographs somehow precludes an investigation of their pictorial character. The problem for him is that Krauss’s view assumes what is to be proved in that it assumes O’Sullivan went to the West as a scientist and his enterprise was scientific in character. However, both of his chiefs argued that photography was incapable of producing pictures useful for scientific purposes so each of them needed topographical draftsmen as well.
Snyder points out that, if we dismiss Krauss’s claim, we are left with no explanation of what O’Sullivan was doing in the West. For Snyder, the short answer is that O’Sullivan was making illustrations for the interim and final reports published by the surveys, and the long answer was that he was making illustrations for an audience of two – his two chiefs – his job being to provide generally descriptive photographs of the places he visited, which function to give a sense of the area but not to be used for the findings of the various authors of the reports.
Snyder explains that very few of the photographs reached an audience of non-professionals and they dropped from sight until Ansel Adams discovered a handful in 1939 which he sent to Beaumont Newhall, then acting curator of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Adams described them as “technically deficient ……. But nonetheless, surrealistic and disturbing”. Beaumont Newhall viewed the photographs as prototypical modernist photographic landscapes and published them in some of his histories. Therefore, O’Sullivan’s photographs entered into the modernist history of photography where they have remained. Having used the photograph Sand Dunes near Carson City (1867) to analyse how O’Sullivan achieved the composition and the placements of human figures as being dwarfed by immense vistas that obliterate individuality. Snyder goes further.
He suggests that each type of photograph – either refusing to bow to the conventions of contemporary landscape photography (O’Sullivan) or exemplifying the values found in the work of many other western photographers (Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson or others) served the interests of the expeditionary leaders. Whilst Watkins et al portrayed the landscape as a scene of potential habitation and exploitation, O’Sullivan’s photographs present the interior as ‘terra incognito’ and this fitted Clarence King’s belief that the inhospitable territory of Shoshone required a field of potential scientific enquiry that was properly the jurisdiction of scientific experts rather than the previous military explorers. Joel Snyder believes that O’Sullivan’s photographs mark the beginning of a continuing era in which expert skills provide the sole means of access to what was part of our common inheritance.
There’s a very interesting essay here by Frank Goodyear (2011) which looks at an early photograph of Shoshone Falls (which might include William Henry Jackson) and uses it to gain insights “into photography’s role in mediating the public’s understanding of the American West and in concealing/revealing the diverse populations and complex network of interconnected relationships that existed in southern Idaho during the 1870s. Shoshone Falls is apparently thirty-six feet higher than Niagara Falls and known for its sublime beauty. Bringing home photographs of it was vital to record the achievement of those who climbed and photographed it and their role in opening up the territory.
Goodyear quotes a remark by one of the members of Clarence King’s party “there is in the entire region of the falls such wildness of beauty that a feeling pervades the mind almost unconsciously that you are, if not the first white man who has ever trod that trail, certainly one of the very few who have ventured so far (2011:272) and Goodyear goes on to describe the methods used to convey this sentiment – a single individual within the larger view (even though there were16 people in all in the party) with the single individual acting as a surrogate for the viewer of the image. e.g.
View of Shoshone Canyon and Falls – in the Idaho Territory, in 1868
(Timothy H. O’Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
And there is one in a similar vein here of the Grand Canyon with the small figures dwarfed by rocks.
Wall in the Grand Canyon, Colorado River – in the Idaho territory in 1868
(Timothy H. O’Sullivan: Google Art Project)
- Timothy O’Sullivan had been a war photographer – perhaps seeing such gruesome sights caused him to suffer from post-traumatic disorder and contributed towards a depressive apprehension of the landscapes he photographed.
- At the same time, how could his views be described ‘scientific’ when he was conveying a ‘feeling’ towards the environment and using specific methods to do so?
- Perhaps Timothy O’Sullivan was one of those artists who were un-regarded at the time because his photographic vision was different from that of most of the others.
- Perhaps he really was a forerunner of the modernist style or of documentary photography.Maybe even photo-journalism considering his war photographs taken on the battlefield.
- The discussions around both photographers highlight the way in which historians and critics of photography apportion photographers to contemporary styles/genres which did not exist during that photographer’s life style.
- Reading about these photographers reminded me of all the different techniques which can be used to compose and convey the sense of a place that the photographer wishes to impart.
- I’m taking note of this continuing debate around photography and what should or shouldn’t be either considered art or to ‘fit’ in the gallery.
Frank H. Goodyear III (2011): An Early Photograph of Shoshone Falls: Uncovering a Network of Communities in 1870s Idaho, History of Photography, 35:3, 269-280