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Photographer in Smithsonian show tweaked truth to play up rock formation's drama

Timothy H. O'Sullivan's view of a sharp mountain ridge reveals his effort to manipulate the image.
Timothy H. O'Sullivan's view of a sharp mountain ridge reveals his effort to manipulate the image. (Library Of Congress, Prints And Photographs Division)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

We like to think that photos don't lie, but some of Timothy H. O'Sullivan's do. Way before Photoshop, he used the way a camera sees -- which is subtly different from the way our eyes do -- to tweak the truth.

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Take "Karnak, Montezuma Range, Nevada." In it, we see the sharp ridge of a mountain snaking in a dramatic diagonal across the frame. There's a feeling of upheaval and disequilibrium. But now look off to the distant, hazy horizon. It's also canted at a steep angle, meaning that O'Sullivan must have tilted the camera to heighten the natural drama of the rock formation.

It's no surprise. "Karnak" was shot in 1867 for Clarence King, the geologist whose survey company O'Sullivan was working for at the time. Although most of King's colleagues understood that the Earth had been formed gradually, over millennia, King subscribed to the theory of "catastrophism," which posited that mountains and other earth forms were the result of brief, violent explosions of activity, alternating with long periods of calm.

O'Sullivan, then, gave his boss exactly what he wanted. And left us with an image of strange, disquieting power.

-- Michael O'Sullivan


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