A consideration of space and freedom and the American West begins logically, in fact, with the Civil War, a war about freedom (it also marks, conveniently, the starting point in America for serious, extensive landscape photography). A significant amount of the war was fought along the edge of the American space, and some even in it...And the war's conclusion made possible the beginning of the great invasion of western space. Indeed, as has often been pointed out, had those who enacted the war not been allowed to migrate in numbers into the West it is hard to see how the hatreds would have cooled as they did.
As do all wars, the Civil War produced a generation of people tired of trying, of paying for ideals, and the condition of the West is to be explained in part by that generation's cynicism and the pattern it set. Many immigrants saw their separation from others as a welcome freedom from responsibility - Liberty meant leaving people, whatever their needs, behind. We became a nation of boomers, everlastingly after a new start out in the open by ourselves.1
On the heals of the Civil War, the westward migration of the late nineteenth-century was laden with certain import. An escape for many, the western landscape was a symbol of freedom and new beginnings. It was also a wilderness to be overcome in the advance of progress and civilization. At the same time, the use of photography in depicting the war had redrawn the connections of the landscape with freedom and national identity with new relevance. Additionally, debates about the meaning of nature from Emerson to Ruskin made the landscape a rich and complex symbol. Whether a desire for escape and a reaction to the war or a sense of imperialism motivated O'Sullivan to join in this westward movement, we will never know. But the surveys he worked in were created to make scientific studies of the landscape, from its geological resources to its topographical features, to provide the information necessary to enable settlement of the West. And "O'Sullivan placed his camera at the scene of American contradiction, the place where...[an] Enlightenment quest for disinterested knowledge through science and art turns into its opposite: a quest for instrumental knowledge for the sake of private gain and imperial power."2 With all of these considerations, O'Sullivan's job of photographing the western landscape was no small nor simple task. Like the project of documenting the war, it was rife with conceptual as well as practical challenges. Yet, amidst all this complexity, we see appearing out of the West, the work of a seasoned artist with his own decidedly clear vision of not only the landscape but of art and perception.
In 1866, Philip and Solomons published Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War. Of its one hundred photographs, forty-four were by O'Sullivan.3 At about this time, Brady offered O'Sullivan a job managing one of his illustrious studios. Rather than pursuing what might have been a noteworthy and comfortable career in the East, however, O'Sullivan signed on to Clarence King's Geological Explorations of the Fortieth Parallel and headed West.
For seven years, between 1867 and 1874, O'Sullivan photographed over one thousand plates with various scientific expeditions, and his decision to do so is significant. It reinforces many of the impressions we get from O'Sullivan's work in the war, including his love for adventure, for immersing himself within his projects, and a love of landscape. It also suggests that O'Sullivan wanted seriously to pursue documentary work and further develop his skills and style. Perhaps he knew that in the field he would have more freedom to pursue his own vision than he would in a popular portrait studio. John Szarkowski of The Museum of Modern Art writes that survey photographers "had not been educated as artists and were therefore without conventional artistic ambitions."4 However, this seems unrealistic, at least in the case of Timothy O'Sullivan.
For one thing, as scientific and as historical as photo-documentation was, Gardner's split from Mathew Brady over Brady's failure to credit his photographers indicates an emerging sense of photography as an artistic profession. It is likely that O'Sullivan's choice to leave Brady for Gardner had much to do with this very issue. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that O'Sullivan would have escaped the general heightened attention to the portrayal of landscape in the popular paintings and even photographs of his contemporaries. Martin Christadler writes:
As the appropriation of nature and the environment was progressing, the idealist rhetoric of the primordial and sublime nature of American landscape became more intense. As the Civil War was devastating Virginia and the South, painters, cultural critics and the educated public construed the Far West as a landscape of original creation, a place of divine presence. The popular success of the western paintings of Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt is symptomatic. In 1864, just when Watkins was doing his great Yosemite views, the U.S. Sanitary Commission organized a huge exhibition in New York with 600 American paintings...its most striking exhibits were two huge paintings by Church and by Bierstadt...which were hung opposite each other in a spectacular mise en scene.5
If he missed the actual exhibit, surely O'Sullivan was not unaware of the growing importance of the landscape and representations of it to the "educated public". If he was, it would not last long. For, Clarence King, the leader of O'Sullivan's first expedition, was a proponent of a theory regarding nature called catastrophism and worked in previous years with the photographer, Watkins. The surveys themselves were the outcome of a national desire to conquer the western landscape. And many Civil War photographs, including a few of O'Sullivan's own, are obvious imitations of landscape painting. In short, there are many reasons to think that O'Sullivan was likely to conceive of his role with the western expeditions as the role of an artist, not least of which was the dedication to the activity evinced in both his Civil War work and the decision to join the expeditions.
In fact, in order to best appreciate O'Sullivan's work it is helpful to look closely at the ways in which his contemporaries were conceiving of and portraying nature and the western landscape. By seeing what aesthetic and theoretical traditions O'Sullivan had at his disposal, we can more clearly see his own vision.