I paid another visit to the Timothy O’Sullivan exhibition now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a second view didn’t do anything to diminish the beauty of these images for me. Though the exhibition labels nicely remind us that the photographs were made to collect evidence for various surveys of the American West, it is hard to resist our modern notion that these pictures, in spite of their original intent, belong to the category of landscape art. In many cases O’Sullivan applied conventions of landscape painting, composing a view with an eye for the balance of forms and the dramatic effects of light. Certainly his photographs have a style—tilted picture planes to suggest the effect of the earth slipping away, or the use of successive planes receding into the distance across various rock formations or the expanse of water made still by the length of the camera exposure. This idea is underscored even further in the exhibition by the inclusion of contemporary photographs whose makers are keenly aware of photography as art. Their presence and the fact that this exhibition is presented in the galleries of an art museum make it very clear that Art is the subject at hand. But unlike these later day landscape makers in the 19th century O’Sullivan’s images did not have the same status enjoyed by formal art. His government sponsored photographs were in a different category than landscape, perhaps one more correctly labeled “purpose.” In his essay, “Naming the View” (published in Reading American Photographs) Alan Trachtenberg points out that western survey geologists viewed photography having two co-dependent qualities: accurate and thus useful in conveying the appearance of place, and beautiful, capable of winning the public’s attention, and probably more importantly gaining new appropriations of dollars from Congress for more survey work. “Scenery” was the word more commonly applied in the 19th century to the survey photographs, and was understood to fuse a sense of particularity of locale with an aesthetic mode of perception.
By the time the time the government once again got into the business of funding photographers to investigate the United States during the Depression years of the 1930s, “scenery” had become a more complicated term that included not only the shapes of natural forms but also the effect of human occupation on the land. And when in the late 1970s the National Endowment for the Arts once again supported photographic surveys, photography had come full circle: the implicit purpose of many of the Survey projects was to support original works of art that might serve as documentation. Photographers once again began to survey the landscape. I couldn’t agree more with Allan Shulman when he writes in click! about how he used archival photographs to reveal the essential urban environment of Miami Beach in preparation for his own documentary work. More than the scenery changes. Over time, the meaning of photographs change around the reason we want to look.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.