Joel Snyder writes:
The artistic ideology that gave shape to much of western American landscape painting and photography between 1850 and 1890 depended heavily on a romantic conception of the ideality of nature and its transcendent significance.6
Americans inherited three main artistic ideologies from Europe, the beautiful, picturesque, and sublime. Yet, they had their own unique interaction with nature and needs out of which they adapted these ideologies. The beautiful "referred to the gentle and smooth designs of nature that reflected harmony, truth, and order," and was reflected in paintings done in the pastoral mode such as Thomas Cole's "The Oxbow".7
The more romantic sublime "found true expression in a pleasurable terror that evoked astonishment, awe, reverence, and respect from the viewer."8. The sublime could embrace the overwhelming, even the dark and destructive features of nature and evoked a sense of the vulnerability of humans. Finally, the picturesque blended elements of both the beautiful and the sublime. Unlike either, however, it emphasized the pure power of a landscape's visual effects rather than its ability to provoke thoughts and feelings of either harmony or vulnerability:
The picturesque appealed primarily to the eye trained to appreciate art....the picturesque stressed the pleasing visual effects of shapes and light and shade - the aesthetic value of pure light and color. It was marked by both a tendency toward an abstract appreciation of aesthetics and an imposition of art theory upon nature. The many travelers who toured the Alps in search of the picturesque were often less interested in a direct experience of nature than they were in finding the few locations wherein nature conformed to the tastes of Rosa or Lorrain.9
Richard Dingus tells us that Americans did not demand that nature look like art, but rather felt a moral responsibility to base their art on objective observations of Nature.10 Scientific investigations into nature by Charles Darwin, Louis Agassiz, Alexander Von Humboldt, and John Tyndall certainly became popular in the mid nineteenth-century.11 At the same time, however, nature was being endowed with religious significance:
The virgin wilderness, undefiled by the presence of man, was considered the creation of God. In the writings of the Transcendentalists, nature became synonymous with God. The sublime took on more strictly Protestant connotations. This newly formed Christian pantheism emphasized that America was the chosen land, and..."that America's riches were God's blessings on a chosen people".12
In general, artists who depicted the western landscape tended toward the picturesque with an emphasis on the sublime. This style was well-suited to the purpose of the surveys which sought to portray the West as inviting not only for the sake of civilization and progress, but for the continued funding of the surveys. Both ideology and the startling "realities of the far western landscape,"13 contributed to the need for a balanced perspective. "The balance that had to be struck in American landscape if the West was to be represented as inviting was between the majesty and awe-inspiring aspects of nature (or, of God) and its inviting, humane, benign aspects."14 Leaders of the surveys such as King, Lt. George M. Wheeler, and J.W. Powell tended to use the beautiful, picturesque, and sublime ideologies in writing their survey reports, 15 and photographers of the West tended to resort to them as well.
While Americans may not have been imposing their aesthetic theories upon the landscape to the degree that European tourists had at the Alps, a preconceived perspective was intrinsic to the use of the picturesque aesthetic. Photography, with its ability to capture detail and texture was well suited to the picturesque. And though it was still under debate as to whether or not photography could do more than record the images which nature itself wrote upon the glass plates,16 the contrast between O'Sullivan's images and those of his contemporaries demonstrates the power the photographer had to portray a certain aesthetic simply through the choice of scene and perspective.
Consider, for example, C.E. Watkins' "Washington Column" with O'Sullivan's "Apache Lake, Sierra Blanca Range, Arizona," likely the photograph Wheeler considered to be O'Sullivan's "only typical scene."17
Watkins' photograph has a symmetry created by the reflection in the water and a consistency of detail throughout the composition that give it cohesion. The broken tree limbs in the foreground and the diagonal lines they create provide an entryway for the viewer into the scene. They also provide a sign of the destruction and decay in nature. At the same time, the symmetry of the scene both horizontally in the reflection, and vertically in the two sets of trees in the background and two patches of foreground in the bottom corners creates balance and harmony. The great contrast of value in the whites of the mountains, water, and tree limbs and the dark of the trees and their reflections, creates a pristine balance both harmonious and exhilarating. The scene is both inviting and awe-inspiring.
O'Sullivan's image has an asymmetrical balance created by the trees in the foreground just left of the center. The elements of the landscape, the trees and mountain ridges, fill the frame, almost stifling the viewer. The view of the dull and placid water behind the trees is more of a relief from the chaotic lines of the intervening trees than the definitive presence of harmony and pristine beauty which the water provides in Watkins' photograph. There is no entry point into O'Sullivan's image as there was with Watkins'. There is depth, but one feels that the inner space where the water lies is made inaccessible by the trees in the foreground. O'Sullivan's view is not a scene to experience so much as a direct confrontation with the landscape. The trees, water, and mountain range all have their own emphasis in the composition as opposed to blending into one scene as in Watkins' picture. The lighting does not create great contrast and drama so much as clarify the texture of the water, surrounding rocks, and mountain range with a certain banality familiar to us from his Civil War photographs. Finally, O'Sullivan's image includes a figure, small and cut off by the frame in the foreground. His being cut off emphasizes the lack of entryway into the scene, while his smallness emphasizes the great size and power of the landscape. It also depicts the landscape as related to humans in time and space, as opposed to as an aesthetic and moral experience or object. Even this most "typical" of O'Sullivan's photographs is far from the typical picturesque representation or conception of nature. O'Sullivan did not approach nature to see what he could find in it or impose upon it, so much as to discover what it had to show him and to reflect that in his photographs.