Photo exhibit at Smithsonian reveals 19th-century artist with modern sensibility

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010; WE35

Who was Timothy H. O'Sullivan?

Mention his name, and most won't have heard of him. To the extent that the 19th-century photographer is known at all, it's chiefly through his role as an apprentice to the famous Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. By the end of O'Sullivan's life (1840-1882), he had pretty much fallen off the art map. He stayed there for about 100 years. Over the past three decades or so, the cognoscenti have been trying to put him back on.

"Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan" just might do it.

That show, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, takes 79 of O'Sullivan's best landscapes -- dryly evocative vistas of Utah, Nevada, Colorado and other Western states that he made while working as staff photographer for two survey expeditions -- and hangs them next to a half-dozen contemporary landscape photographs. The aesthetic similarity is striking.

In the words of curator Toby Jurovics, O'Sullivan was the first 19th-century photographer to understand something that nowadays everyone takes for granted: "that the camera has the capacity for metaphor."

These pictures show us, in other words, not only what the West once looked like, but how to feel about it. In a world where every other photographer was either imitating painting or taking pictures that amounted to little else than scientific illustration, O'Sullivan somehow found a way to simultaneously serve two masters. Shot under contract, his austere yet strangely beguiling pictures of the frontier are both records and subtle manipulations of a world we were still making sense of.

Walking through the show, you don't feel the physical grandeur of the land so much as a mix of bleakness and isolation, tempered with longing and dreams. Sure, there are some purely scenic views. O'Sullivan's pictures of Shoshone Falls, Idaho, for instance, and of boulders breaking the surface of Nevada's Pyramid Lake are among the prettiest in the show.

But there are also curiously humble pictures, including "Apache Lake, Sierra Blanca Range, Arizona." It shows a little pool surrounded by trees at the bottom of a hill. Nothing special. Certainly not postcard material. But it's a lovely visual poem, and its sense of private discovery thrills.

Jurovics puts it this way: "He wasn't daunted by the fact that nothing's there."

That's a very contemporary sensibility, and it helps explain why the artist has become the darling of so many photographers today. You'll find that same sensibility in "Nee Noshe Reservoir, Kiowa County, Colorado," a 1993 landscape from Eric Paddock, one of the six contemporary photographers whose work is sprinkled throughout "Framing the West." Like O'Sullivan's photos, there's a loneliness in Paddock's picture that belies the work's literal -- you might even say banal -- subject matter (in this case, an empty gravel road and trees). Placed near O'Sullivan's pictures, Paddock's photo has the effect of making O'Sullivan's look, well, modern. Frankly, it's a bit of a shock.

Not much is known about O'Sullivan except his work. He left no letters or diaries, and he may, in fact, have been illiterate, according to Jurovics.

The images in the show -- most of which are on loan from the Library of Congress, and many of which have been seen only rarely since 1876 -- speak for themselves. Not loudly, or over-proudly, for the most part, but with a tone of quiet questioning, of searching for something deeper than the surface of things.

Who was Timothy H. O'Sullivan? The answer is in the pictures.

FRAMING THE WEST: THE SURVEY PHOTOGRAPHS OF TIMOTHY H. O'SULLIVAN Through May 9 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown). 202-633-1000 (TDD: 202-633-5285). Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: Free. Public program: On March 17, curator Jurovics will give a free gallery talk about the exhibition.

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