Photography Links to Virgin Land

Timothy O'Sullivan, Black Canyon


The purpose of this page is to link the photographic work of Andrew J. Russell, William Henry Jackson, Carlton Watkins, and Timothy O'Sullivan to Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land:The American West as Symbol and Myth. These photos are intended as a preliminary supplemental reading to Smith's text. The few works that I have chosen are intended to both support and expand upon his arguments, though they are just a small sample of the many visual images that developed in some way ideologies of the American West. The descriptions that precede the images serve as the most basic of introductions. With that in mind, the reader may wish to read the text in its entirety, and procede to view the photos, or switch between the text and the image, at will.

--Tuomi Forrest

A.J. Russell served as a photographer for the War Department during the Civil War. Assigned to document military railroad construction, he also photographed many battle sites. Thus, he alternated between portraying an exciting of new technology and the bleak horror of a devastating war. As an example of the latter, his Stone Wall, Rear of Fredricksburg, With Rebel Dead, 3 May 1863 presents a stark and graphic view of a post-battle scene. Russell composes his photograph so that one's eye follows the converging lines of wall, trench, and ridge, while at the same time is arrested by the foregrounded figure of a dead and bloody body, surrounded by strewn guns and articles of clothing. The photogrph forms a dialectic between the choas of war, and the serenity of landscape, a dialectic that would be reformed and reworked as he (and other) war photogrphers travelled west.

After 1865, many of these proto-photojournalists were hired by railroad companies to document and celebrate the building of railways into the (relatively) unpopulated West. Russell, with his rail photography experience, proved an ideal candidate, and soon worked for the Union Pacific Co. In Meeting of the Rails, Promontory Point, Utah, 1869 he captures the celebration of this momentous occasion [completion of the first transcontinental railroad], and the joys of (union)fication as opposed to the sorrows of civil war. The new battle waged war against nature and her hosts of heat, dessert, mountain, and snow, and for the 'myth of the garden'. As Smith tells us: "when the attention of the nation was brought upon the plains by the construction of the Union Pacific...traveling journalists began picking up intimations that rainfall might somehow be increased." (Virgin Land, 209) The myth of the garden, and the reality of the railroad, convinced many that the desert was its opposite. However, Russell (and others as we will see) also portrayed the barren, stark feeling of this new Western landscape. In his Granite Canyon From the Water Tower, 1863 he gives us a landscape that is forbiding to tree and water loving Eastern eyes; the rail barely imposes itself on the ridge of dry dirt (which itself is an inversion of the deathly trench that we saw in Stone Wall ), though its linearity marks it as an unatural, taming impositon. The image is more ambiguous in terms of its celebratory position towards either the traintracks, or their place in this earth.

Western landscape was depicted not only as barren desert, but as lush garden paradise as well. The works of W.H Jackson, Carlton Watkins, and Timothy O'Sullivan may serve as further evidence of these competing visions. While many of the soon-to-be Western photographers worked the Civil War battlefields, Watkins was creating some of the first magnificent (photo) landscapes west of the Mississippi. His photographic style followed that of popular American landscape painters, both of the Hudson River school, and of the later Western painters such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. His Cape Horn, Colombia River Oregon,1867 is a later example of this vision. Note the tranquil water, the majestic cliffs and trees--Nature proves both awesome but inviting, a grander version of the East to be sure, yet still (necessarily) edenic.

Contrast this view with that of Timothy O'Sullivan, another war photogrpher (one of Mathew Brady's crew) who travelled west, not under the aegis of the railroad, but of the U.S. Geological Service. He participated in both King and Wheeler surveys that took place between 1867 and 1874. In Sand Dunes, Carson Desert, 1867 he presents an inhospitable desert traced with a temporary human presence. Note the impermanence of the footprints and wagon tracks in comparison to Russell's Granite Canyon train tracks. In the latter, the desert is in some measure conquered by the presence of the rail, and buildings in the distance, while in O'Sullivan's version, the wagon speaks only to 'passing through' without altering an inhospitable landscape for the benefit of humanity.

William Henry Jackson in some ways unites the pastoral vision of a Western garden with the presence of an awesome new technology. He traveled and worked with landscape painters R.S. Gifford and Thomas Moran, and his The Behive Group of Geysers/Yellowstone Park shows a master landscapist's version of a strange yet hospitable West; the mysterious geyser plumes are distanced by the placid mirror of the lake, which in turn reflects the sky, and is embraced by marshy grasses. In Canon of the Rio Animas and the Needle Mts, 1880's, Jackson unites his pastoral vision with the image of a new force. The triumphant engine is forgrounded-- complete with elk antler trophy (naturalizing the machine) while the snake-like track threads the needle mts, imitating the course of the "River of the Souls." Note also, the figures of the engineers astride their iron horse, and the smaller figure of the naturalist--fisherman. There is no apparent conflict between the two types--though the engineers are dominant, though darwfed by their steed. For a final view of the interplay of the 'myth of the garden' with exploration go to Jackson's Interior of Photographic Railroad Car, 1902. The viewer is brought inside a lush interior of the late gilded age carriage. Plastered to the walls are a melange of panoramic Western landscape photographs. Nature is fully encompased in the manmade; it is safe, scenic, and perhaps inspiring (in a nostagic way) in its captured and tamed essence. The frontier has indeed been closed.

Further Reading

The following is by no means a comprehensive list, though it may serve as a starting point for those interested in the subject of 19th Century photography, especially as it relates to the American West.

Photography (General):
Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography
Joel Snyder, "Inventing Photography, 1839-1879" in On the Art of Fixing a Shadow

Photography and Painting:
Eugene Ostroff, Western Views and Eastern Visions
Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875

Peter Hales, William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape
James D. Horan, Timothy O'Sullivan, America's Forgotten Photographer
Rick Dingus, The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O'Sullivan

Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden
Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America