“Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs” is the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s fourth show in a decade to explore aspects of the country’s westward expansion.
But unlike the mostly painted romantic views of the topic provided by exhibits of work by Alfred Jacob Miller, “The Age of Steam” and George Catlin, O’Sullivan stuck to the facts.
And that’s what he was hired to do when he joined the U.S. Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, known as the King Survey, after its leader, geologist Clarence King.
By 1867 when the survey began, O’Sullivan was a known quantity in the photographic world, having established his reputation as a Civil War photographer under Matthew Brady.
The survey’s mission was scientific: to document the topology and resources within a swath of the West from California to Colorado — 100 miles wide and 800 miles long — which included the path of the transcontinental railroad.
Despite assorted misadventures, including a bout of malaria and encounters with rattlesnakes, the team’s work lasted five years, from 1867 to 1872. Topographers mapped the land; zoologists, botanists and geologists collected specimens of minerals, flora and fauna. O’Sullivan’s contribution was a body of 450 photographs.
The Nelson exhibit features 60 of his black-and-white pictures in a quietly fascinating display.
The show — and a major accompanying book — represent a labor of love for senior curator of photography Keith Davis, who has studied and admired O’Sullivan’s work for 40 years.
“There’s a stripped-down sensibility, a bluntness, a clean, pristine perception,” Davis said recently at the show. “He’s documenting specific things. They’re stark and minimal. The work doesn’t conform to 19th-century picturesque standards; it’s not chamber of commerce.
“This would not entice anyone to move out there,” he said, standing before a view of scrubby land, in which the photographer’s horse-drawn wagon appears in the distance.
Still, as Davis notes in the catalog, “There was never any question that the survey’s ultimate aim lay in determining the region’s potential for habitation and exploitation.”
Science, too, served the cause of Manifest Destiny, yet as Davis notes, O’Sullivan’s photographs carry “no sense of triumphalism.”
The exhibit follows O’Sullivan’s four seasons with the survey and his changes in subject and approach.
One of the first images, an 1867 shot of the Central Pacific Railroad’s Long Ravine Bridge, reflects the key importance of the railroad to the survey’s mission.
“Sand Dunes, Carson Desert, Nevada,” includes the photographer’s wagon and his footprints, left when he stepped away to get the shot. It is one of the first images to evidence what Davis calls O’Sullivan’s “explicitly modern self-reflexivity.”
“To make his own presence an active part of the final picture is completely new,” Davis said.
The 1867 pictures include geological formations such as the columnar basalt in Nevada’s Montezuma range and the tufa rock formations in Pyramid Lake, Nev.
Viewers who are not geologists can learn a lot from the accompanying labels, which explain how basalt and tufa were formed. And not surprisingly, for an expedition led by a geologist, O’Sullivan shot a lot of geological formations.
Among the most dramatic and poetic are the craggy humped rock formations that rise from the waters of Pyramid Lake. Two 1867 images of them, titled “Pyramid and Domes,” also offer early evidence of O’Sullivan’s penchant for cropping or truncating his images, another tendency that Davis identifies as modern.
Perhaps nowhere does O’Sullivan better capture the feeling of the Old West than in a series of images, taken in 1868, of mining operations along the Comstock Lode.
“These industrial pictures show lots of activity, not unknown pristine territory,” Davis said. “Silver mining along the Comstock Lode boomed in the 1860s.”
O’Sullivan shot long views of the mining structures and the clusters of small houses on the mountainside, but several of his most striking pictures were taken underground, using magnesium flares for light. They include shots of a miner at work — one is a stereograph, the 3-D technology of the day — and the ominously titled “Cave In.”
In “Shaft of Savage Mine, Virginia City, Nevada,” men pose with their mining carts, framed by the boxy shafts. They were paid from $3.50 to $6 a day.
Contrasting with these records of human labor, which were not published, Davis notes, are stark images of Mono Lake, Calif. Rectangles of water and sky, separated by a narrow strip of snowy land, bring the modernist paintings of Mark Rothko to mind.
“You feel like you’re on Mars,” said assistant curator Jane Aspinwall, who co-organized the exhibit with Davis.
A shot of summer snow in the Nevada mountains includes a tiny figure, but it’s composed as an abstraction. From O’Sullivan’s chosen vantage point, the mountain peaks in the background echo the contours of the striated slab of white that juts into the foreground.
In 1869, the survey team’s activities centered on Salt Lake City. The trip yielded some of O’Sullivan’s most arresting images of geological phenomena, including the totemic “Witches’ Rocks” in Echo Canyon, Utah, and the pair of limestone walls known as the “Devil’s Slide” at Weber Canyon, Utah.
As Aspinwall notes in her essay for the catalog, they were formed “when two parallel resistant limestone beds along a fault line were upturned vertically, protruding 40 feet out of the canyon side.”
During the 1872 trip, O’ Sullivan often photographed from an elevated perspective, which meant he “had to clamber up from the river level and down,” Davis said. Demonstrating a new interest in reflections and the play of light and shadow, these later images come closest to the romanticized visions of the Hudson River School — Albert Bierstadt actually joined King in the Sierra Nevada for several weeks in 1872 — but O’Sullivan never waxes sentimental.
The awe we feel before his magnificent “Junction of Yampa and Green Canyons, Colorado” and “Canyon of Lodore From Yampa River, Colorado” is as much for his skills as a photographer as the scene he portrays.
Instead of wowing us with purple mountain majesties, O’Sullivan meticulously records the folds of rock and textures of scrubby vegetation, the winding path of the river and the rhythms created by geological activity.
The works epitomize this exhibit’s greatest gift: a lack of manipulation that is as refreshing as it is rare.