Framing the West is a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It features 120 of the extraordinary photographs Timothy O’Sullivan made for the King and Wheeler Surveys, two of the most important geological surveys of the western United States. The exhibition demonstrates not only the ability of the camera to capture the details of place, but the talent of O’Sullivan to create a powerful vision of American landscape. We thought we would add to the O’Sullivan experience and point to yet another survey that he was part of during this period. In 1870, US Navy Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. was ordered to command an expedition to survey the Isthmus of Darien that connects Panama and Columbia. For a year O’Sullivan accompanied him. As America expanded west, the inconvenience and danger of the journey across the plains by land or around the Horn by sea drove exploration to discover an inter-oceanic transit. Selfridge was engaged in this work until 1874 and explored and reported upon all the country south of Panama to the headwaters of the Atrata River. Ultimately, however, the expedition concluded that the scheme to create a canal across Panama, at least for that moment and at that location, was not practical. Now collected in the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, O’Sullivan’s photographs of sailing ships and Panamanian jungle villages make an interesting comparison to his photographs that feature the rough geometries of the western deserts of the United States.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.