The object of the exercise was to read, note and summarise the main points of Snyder’s essay. The second part of the exercise is to choose a photograph from the two photographers in the essay and show how they fit into the notes made.
Snyder opens his essay with the puzzle of where photography fitted into the arts due to its infancy and in the manner of picture making as it was seen as non-traditional. As there was an evolving belief that photographs were different from fine art techniques, the technique and practice of picture making became more realistic and the appearance of the image made them machine-made rather than traditional man-made. This allowed photographic practitioners the freedom to make images of their own choice and, hand in hand with advances in technology, mass printing of images created postcards and prints of existing known landscapes and views.
These first landscape photographers composed their scenes based on the compositions of landscape painting. They did not frequently step out of these boundaries when composing photographic landscapes. Their work was mainly personal and not for mass consumption. With the burgeoning of photographic image factories there was a need for the creation, print and sale of architecture, travel and landscape prints, usually created by the commercial photographers who did not come from the fine arts background and who therefore were not bound by the rules of composition, but they were bound by the simple fact that as they could not add in anything to add to the aesthetic, they instead had to capture what was in front of the lens.
Synder then proceeds to discuss the work of two landscape photographers, Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan. Watkins was able to define himself by the use of extremely large negatives. E, each 20 by 24 inch image allowed him to capture stunning images of the American West. His Yosemite images made him an international name and his work is held as a standard for his fellow photographers in the American West.
Watkins work is seen as a perfect reproduction of a sight or view. A that anyone who visited the spot would see exactly what Watkins photographed, as was Watkins intention. Watkins was commissioned for the California Geological Survey where his photographs would be used to visually record details mainly for use as scientific evidence for the mining and lumber industries. Following this commission, Watkins worked with the Pacific railroads again recording evidence of the progress they were making in civilising the West. Watkins was able to sympathetically capture the brutal progress that these industries were making on the landscape; using the combination of man-made shapes against the natural environment. Watkins would then tend the image, reducing the tonality so that the middle tones of light and dark became the image’s main point of aesthetical pleasure. Watkins carefully balanced and harmonised his images to control the immensity of his landscapes, creating a view of the American West as an open, inviting, peaceful and beautiful landscape, ready to welcome the covered wagons of settlers.
Working at the same time as Watkins was Timothy O’Sullivan. O’Sullivan had already established himself as a field photographer due to his work as a civilian photographer with the Army of the Potomac.
O’Sullivan accompanied geologist Clarence King on a civilian mission to scientifically map and inventory the American West. O’Sullivan worked alongside scientists, mining engineers, lumbar specialists and land management specialists and viewed his work as mainly record keeping for scientific purposes rather than for public purchase and viewing. It could be said that his images were starker so that Congress who funded these expeditions would continue to fund them. Certainly, King was happy with O’Sullivan’s images stating that they were “generally descriptive” of the areas visited by the expedition. Snyder views O’Sullivan as the antithesis of Watkins, describing his images as contra-invitational, viewing the landscapes portrayed in the images as stark, unsettling and unwelcoming. O’Sullivan’s landscapes are unique as they identify the landscape as the enemy of civilised man, in complete opposition to the work of Watkins. Certainly, some of O’Sullivan’s work can be seen as the photographer versus the landscape, conquering the great unknown to single handily catalogue the unknown west. It can be viewed however that O’Sullivan had a lighter side, shown in Hot Springs Cone (1869) where the head of an assistant sits disembodied atop a mound of rock. The rock cone is hollow and the assistant standing inside the cone tips his head out, a” look at me mum” moment captured by O’Sullivan perhaps to lighten a long and stressful day.
Mainly O’Sullivan used people to highlight the enormous scale of his views, counteracting the human against the volume of stone, water and sky which outweighs him. O’Sullivan carefully balanced the dark and light tones within his images to ensure that he captured both big sky as well as the enormous land below.
Analyse one image from each of the named photographers.
This is a good example of Snyders point regarding Watkins depiction of the American West, the landscape here is open and welcoming. The ground is rising to meet the viewer and the valley is pristine and clean. A waterfall can be seen in the midground demonstrating that the land is habitable and the valley itself is bright and non-threatening. Watkins has ensured that there are no deep dark tones within the valley and the whole image is a clean commercial image which will be easy to print and sell. It is as Watkins stated an accurate record detached from artistic endeavour and is non-interpretive as a “mechanical record” of the landscape can be. This image is reminiscent of the work of A.B. Durand who was painting the Appalachian mountains in the same period, however, Durand’s work is a more idealised landscape rather than Watkins truer representations.
Timothy O’O’Sullivan’sandscape here has no real commercial resale value for mass public printing, it shows a landscape where people are dwarfed by the unwelcoming rocks which surround them. O’Sullivans’ image has dark heavy tones throughout and parts of the landscape hide in shadow, unseen to the eye. This is a prime example of Snyders claim that the work is non invitational, here the surveys team tents are tiny wooden and cloth constructions, temporary and insignificant against the rock which looks ready to cartwheel down and crush them.
Looking through the collections of Watkins and O’Sullivan’s work it can be shown that Snyder is correct in his assessment of the work of both men during this period. However, there are a number of O’Sullivan’s works which deviate from Snyders claim that his work is less invitational that Watkins; as these images show a stark beauty to the landscape which with a little viewing can be seen to be more open and welcoming than when first assessed.
J., W., 2002. Landscape and Power. University of Chicago Press.
Repository.asu.edu. (2018). Timothy O’Sullivan as seen by Ansel Adams in the 1930s. [online] Available at: https://repository.asu.edu/attachments/108263/content/JSA_VOL2_NO2_Pages162-179_Salvesen.pdf [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
Rod Giblett (2009) Wilderness to wasteland in the photography of the American west, Continuum, 23:1, 43-52, DOI: 10.1080/10304310802570866
The Photographs of Carleton Watkins. 2018. The Photographs of Carleton Watkins. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.carletonwatkins.org/. [Accessed 30 April 2018].
Smithsonian American Art Museum. 2018. Timothy H. O’Sullivan | Smithsonian American Art Museum. [ONLINE] Available at: https://americanart.si.edu/artist/timothy-h-osullivan-3600. [Accessed 30 April 2018].
The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. 2018. Timothy H. O’Sullivan (Getty Museum). [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1892/timothy-h-o’sullivan-american-about-1840-1882/. [Accessed 30 April 2018].
Author: Kevin J. Avery. 2018. Asher Brown Durand (1796–1886) | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dura/hd_dura.htm. [Accessed 01 May 2018].