|Feb. 1, 2006||
Press Contacts: Christine Carrino|
ONE/MANY: Western American survey photographs by Bell and O'Sullivan Feb. 2 through May 7, 2006
William Bell and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, two photographers who joined survey expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s, helped open the eyes of nineteenth-century Americans to the western frontier. Their sweeping and dramatic landscape photographs emerged from government-sponsored geological surveys documenting the western territories. These "Great Surveys" explored huge swaths of land encompassing Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. Yet in this wilderness, Bell and O’Sullivan captured striking, technically complicated images that are now some of the most celebrated in early American photography.
On Thursday, February 2, from 5 to 7 p.m., "One/Many: Western American Survey Photographs by Bell and O’Sullivan" will open at the Smart Museum with a public reception and talk by exhibition curator and photography historian Joel Snyder. Featuring over 60 vintage prints, the exhibition highlights the Smart’s recent acquisition of a substantial body of work by Bell and O’Sullivan, presenting it in the context of the geographic surveys and the larger cultural and artistic traditions that helped define the American West. Particularly impressive are their large-scale panoramic views, which have rarely been seen and are reconstructed from individual albumen prints for the first time since the nineteenth century.
"One/Many" explores the use of photography in two of the most important geological expeditions to the American West — the King Expedition (1867-69, 1872) and the Wheeler Expedition (1871-74) — presenting images whose scope and aesthetic appeal are often stunning. The King Expedition, led by civilian scientist Clarence King under the sponsorship of the U.S. Army, explored a 1000-mile expanse of land along the 49th parallel, from Colorado to California. Led by Lieutenant George Wheeler, the celebrated Wheeler Expedition comprised over a dozen individual trips and explored vast areas of land west of the 100th meridian. Like many survey chiefs of the period, King and Wheeler populated their survey teams with talented field scientists and artists, whose accomplishments advanced a range of scientific fields and provided valuable data about western territories.
Prior to joining the surveys, O’Sullivan distinguished himself as a field photographer during the Civil War, creating well-known images of battlefields and scenic sites in captured southern territories. In late 1862, he joined a Washington photography studio as "Superintendent of the Field or Copy Work to the Army of the Potomac," a job requiring technical skills and the ability to make large numbers of prints quickly. By the war’s end, he had an established reputation as a field photographer who could work under great pressure. Bell began his career in 1848 as a daguerreotypist in Philadelphia at age eighteen and continued his studio work until 1862. At the close of the Civil War, he served as chief photographer of the Army Medical Museum in Washington, photographing soldiers recovering from battlefield injuries and also establishing his reputation as a skilled portrait and field photographer. While O’Sullivan’s work has been widely acclaimed, Bell’s is still very much unknown to the public. "One/Many" therefore offers encounters with celebrated images as well as discoveries of lesser-known work.
The purposes of the surveys were varied. Locating optimal road and railway routes and evaluating the potential of the land for economic development were major motivations. Several photographs on display, for example, show sites where silver ore was extracted; O’Sullivan even managed to capture the first subterranean shots of miners at work. Another focus was Indian settlements. Although survey teams had uneasy relations with Native Americans (armed conflict was not unknown), they documented the daily life and dwellings of Apache, Mojave, Navajo, Ute, and Zuni natives. In large part, however, the photographers trained their cameras on panoramic western vistas and their distinctive topographical features.
The title "One/Many" alludes to an aspect of survey photographs that has often gone unremarked: that some were intended to be assembled as panoramas. It also evokes the double status of photographic panoramas as singular and multiple objects. The exhibition places a special focus on panoramic views, exploring the reasons for producing them during the surveys and the ways they were used. In the nineteenth century studio, photography was often vexing because of its unpredictability; in the field, it could be maddening. The field photographer had to transport his camera and darkroom through difficult terrain, risking breakage of plates and bottles and the spillage of chemicals. Even when these hazards were avoided, the process was painstaking, sometimes requiring days to coax a single image into line. Photographing and assembling large-scale panoramas was even more challenging.
Both Bell and O’Sullivan made a handful of panoramas for their survey work. Remarkably, however, only one — O’Sullivan’s Beaver Park, Valley of Conejos River, Colorado from 1874 — was converted to a lithograph and presented in a survey publication. Additionally, only three multiple-print views (one by O’Sullivan and two by Bell) are known to have been exhibited, at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. "One/Many" therefore offers a rare look at the large-scale panoramas created by the two photographers. For example, several of Bell’s spectacular panoramas have been reconstructed for the first time since the nineteenth century. Other prints are displayed individually, as they would have been originally seen in albums.
Science or Art?
The exhibition also locates the work of Bell and O’Sullivan in the context of other popular representations of the American landscape during the period. For example, it presents a comparative selection of work by William Henry Jackson, a photographer with an exceptionally long career who joined the survey led by Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden in the 1870s. His photographs present a western landscape that appears hospitable and even comfortable; rarely does it look savage or forbidding. With his instinct for such appealing views, Jackson went on to enjoy great commercial success.
Bell and O’Sullivan offered a different vision of the West. Unlike Jackson, their photographs emphasize notably the difficulty of western terrain. They also depart from the comfortable landscape conventions employed by artists of the period to depict settled eastern territories and refrain from presenting western territories as an uncomplicated extension of the East. Although they approached their survey work with the skill of commercial photographers, they captured an American West still untamed.
The survey chiefs, however, could hardly have been unaware of the potential of Shoshone Falls and other dramatic, frequently photographed locales to attract potential tourists and perhaps additional expedition funding. Accordingly, the images chosen for survey reports were not always selected for their scientific accuracy. Some descriptive legends in albums even contain directions to the sites, a reminder that the railroad made such trips increasingly possible.
History, Condition, and Provenance
"One/Many" also presents the survey photographs of Bell and O’Sullivan not simply as images but as physical objects with a life history. All the Smart Museum photographs on display come from the Gedney family collection, where they had resided since the 1870s. The family very likely received these prints directly from the survey photographers, with whom they had strong connections; Charles DeForest Gedney himself participated in one of the Wheeler expeditions. In the 1930s, the Gedney collection was divided between two branches of the family. The Smart Museum purchased the larger group of albumen prints from the family in 2003 and acquired the remainder in 2005, reuniting the two components of the original collection.
The ragged edges and stains of the survey photographs tell an important story about how they were used and appreciated. For example, a sumptuous print of the iconic Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, New Mexico Territory from a private collection appears alongside a more worn and creased Gedney print of the same subject. Also presented in the exhibition are more modern albumen prints made by Chicago Albumen Works, using duplicates of survey negatives housed at the National Archives and Records Administration, along with other images and materials that explore how survey photographs were used and reproduced after leaving the field, including contemporary digital imaging.
Published in landscape format, with handsome full-page reproductions of the vintage photographs at nearly full scale (including gatefold panoramas), the catalogue features scholarly essays by Joel Snyder and Josh Ellenbogen and a section on nineteenth-century photographic techniques. The book is distributed by the University of Chicago Press and will be available at the Smart Museum Shop. To order, call 773.702. 0528 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
All events are free and open to the public unless otherwise noted.
Thursday, February 2, 5 — 7 pm
Sunday, February 5, 1 — 4 pm
Sunday, February 12, 2 pm
Saturday, March 18, 4 pm
Sunday, April 2, 2 pm
Friday, April 7, 4:30 pm
Thursday, April 20, 8 pm
Prints for this screening are courtesy of the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Presented in 35mm with English intertitles. Co-sponsored by the Film Studies Center, University of Chicago.
Sunday, May 7, 2 pm
"One/Many: Western American Survey Photographs by Bell and O’Sullivan" is curated by Joel Snyder, University of Chicago Professor of Art History, in consultation with Anne Leonard, Smart Museum Mellon Curator, and is presented in the Smart Museum’s Richard and Mary L. Gray Special Exhibition Gallery. The exhibition, catalogue, and related programs are generously supported in part by the Smart Family Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rhoades Foundation, the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, and the Franke Institute for the Humanities, University of Chicago. Lead corporate sponsorship is generously provided by LaSalle Bank.
Last modified at 05:55 AM CST on Thursday, February 02, 2006.
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