Exercise 2.1

Territorial Photography

Read Snyder’s essay ‘ Territorial Photography ’, available as a Student Resource. Summarise Snyder’s key points.
Next, find and evaluate two photographs by any of the photographers Snyder mentions, but not specific examples that he addresses in the essay. Your evaluation ( up to 250 words for each) should reflect some of the points that Snyder makes, as well as any other references.

LP&E, p.66

Copied from BAPhot 25Dec21
Updated 31Dec21 with Baltz quote.

C19th print finishing – Watkins – O’Sullivan – Krauss – Part 2

[5Dec21] Let me state at the outset that I disagree with the some of the judgments Snyder arrives at in his essay.

The essay deals with four main subjects: a description of some technical and attendant aesthetic changes that occurred in the early days of landscape photography; a demolition of the Krauss essay discussed in Exercise 1.2; and evaluations then a comparison of the work of Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan. It is the evaluation of O’Sullivan that I disagree with most strongly with, as I did in the corresponding course material.

1 In contrast with the beginning of this course which considered the way the Pictorialists sought to emulate (and thus be considered and accepted with) painted art by manipulating negatives and prints, Snyder emphasises the mechanical nature and machine-made appearance of photographs and how, by the late 1850s, gloss finishes were introduced to further distance the photograph from painting. He suggests that photographers’ acceptance of the differentiation rested on the nature of their main market which was the increasingly populous and prosperous middle classes who embraced the new technology that was enabling their rise and embraced photography as an example of that progress. The objective realism of landscape photographs, in contrast to the subjective romanticism and impressionism of the painted equivalent is one basis of their audience appeal and Snyder remarks that it is “ironic” (Snyder in Mitchell, 2002, p.176) that photographic histories and theorising in the landscape genre have concentrated on aesthetic qualities rather than practical, technical and mercantile aspects.

C19th print finishing – Watkins – O’Sullivan – Krauss – Part 2

2Landscape photography of the 1840s inherited the aesthetic imperatives of paintings but by the 1850s, local markets for regional photographs were developing, supported by local residents and tourists, and these gradually built into networks, making available a wide range of landscape imagery. Snyder describes at length the development of the market for landscape photographs and the change of aesthetic to realism and fine detail and the technical proficiency this required as gentlemen amateur photographers gave way to business-conscious professionals. A key practitioner of the new wave of photographers was Carleton Watkins, described by Snyder as possessing “heretofore unmatched technical virtuosity”, his own version of “the picturesque and sublime modes of picture depiction” and a “mammoth 20-by24 inch” camera (p.182) and his images were “emulated by nearly every important photographer of the American West up to and including Ansel Adams” (p.183) and his influence even extended to US painters (p.185).
Watkins used the same approach in his work for the California State Geological Survey and commercial work for mining and logging companies, where he seeks”to portray a visual harmony between the land and the new tokens of progress symbolized by the industrialization of the land itself” (p.187). Snyder says of Watkins’ railroad image at Cape Horn (fig. A1 the he , “found here an effective means of obliterating the division between what he called “natural wildness” and the hard-edged, linear forms of industrial technology. The appearance of the land is left undisturbed by the rails, unscarred, in its original condition” (pp.187-8). The key point here with Watkins’ commercial work for industry is that he is working to a brief to depict the land when industry is installed as remaining largely unspoiled and still attractive both for migration and further industrialisation. Snyder comments, “I don’t mean to suggest that Watkins was a self-conscious propagandist for mining or railroad interests”, but he is being disingenuous: that is the job, and that is what Watkins is doing. He later states, “Watkins’s photographs reinforce the commitment of his audience to a belief in a western American Eden, but it represents the Garden in a way that encourages the audience to see it as a scene of potential exploitation and development” (p.189). Quite so.

The Stereo view fig. A2 is available in high resolution from Getty – Link.

Image sources:
fig. A1 The Met, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/283222
fig. A2 Getty, http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/204668/carleton-watkins-cape-horn-near-celilo-columbia-river-american-1867/

C19th print finishing – Watkins – O’Sullivan – Krauss – Part 2

3Snyder now turns to the work of Timothy H. O’Sullivan, which he presents in a very different light, immediately describing his approach as “controversial” (p.190).

Watkins and O’Sullivan were compared in Part 2 of the course material and along very similar lines to Snyder. O’Sullivan’s background is outlined, apprentice to Matthew Brady with whom he worked, photographing the Civil War; then continuing war photography with Alexander Gardner; after the war, working with government-sponsored surveys of the US interior. O’Sullivan did not have a specific brief when working with the surveys, Snyder quotes one of the survey expedition leaders, Clarence King’s instructions to, “give a sense of the area [with] generally descriptive” photographs (p.192). In Snyder’s view,

[O’Sullivan’s] photographs are singular when compared with the work of other western photographers of the period. They repeatedly deny what Watkins’s photographs characteristically confirm, namely, the possibility of comfortable habitation, of an agreeable relation of humans to the natural landscape. They portray a bleak, inhospitable land, a godforsaken,unapetizing landscape

Snyder in Mitchell, 2002, p.191

In an interesting, name-dropping swipe, Snyder states that after publication of the surveys in 1879 O’Sullivan and his work “dropped from sight until 1939” (p.192) when Ansel Adams came across some and sent them to Beaumont Newhall, describing them in a covering letter as, “technically deficient, even by the standards of the time, but nonetheless, surrealistic and disturbing” (pp.192-3). Newhall saw some merit, or at least some significance in them and included O’Sullivan in his History of Photography.. Newhall’s History was first published in 1937. The 1964 edition has no adverse comments on O’Sullivan or his work, describing him as, “one of the most daring war photographers” and of fig. B1,

In camp thirty-five miles below the present site of Hoover Dam, O’Sullivan made one of his finest views. In the foreground his boat, Picture, is drawn up to the bank, with the omnipresent black dark tent inside it. The waters of the Colorado appear deceptively smooth, due to the length of exposure. Behind rise the dark and menacing profiles of Black Canyon.

Newhall, 1964, p.78

of fig. B2,

One view was taken by brilliant, raking sunlight, which picks out every stratum of the Canyon wall. Two tiny figures pose on the famous White House ruin “in a niche 50 feet from present Cañon bed,” as the caption reads. Two other explorers stand among the lower ruins; one holds the rope by which the cliff was scaled.

Newhall, 1964, p.78

Newhall includes O’Sullivan’s Dunes in his 1964 edition but does not mention it at all in the text. The O’Sullivan entry in the 1982 edition of Newhall (pp.94, 100) is largely unchanged.

Image sources:
fig. B1 The Met, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/264711
fig. B2 Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Timothy_O%27Sullivan,Anasazi_ruins(the_%22White_House%22),_Canyon_de_Chelly,_Arizona,_1873.jpg
fig. B3, Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Timothy_O%27Sullivan_-Sand_Dunes,_Carson_Desert,_Nevada-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

Snyder was particularly dismissive of O’Sullivan’s fig. B3 and Newhall’s promotion of it

It is easy to see why Newhall popularized some of O’Sullivan’s photograph. Thanks to Newhall, Sand Dunes near Carson City, 1867, one of the first made by O’Sullivan as he entered the Great Basin in the first days of his first season in the West, is one of two most well-known prints by O’Sullivan. … It is easy to see why a modernist would find this picture appealing – it seems to be centered on the conditions of photography and the craft of a photographer. …
It is important to know, however, that this picture is misleading. It was made in the midst of a great flat, red-earth plateau in which in which dunes like this occasionally dot the plain. O’Sullivan dragged the wagon with great effort and the help of a member of the expedition, onto the dunes and then moved his camera in close so that the edges of the picture cropped off the barren flatness of the plains. As a bit of scientific information (understood as a “representative sample” of the region), its suggestion of a boundless desert is entirely inaccurate.

Snyder in Mitchell, 2002, pp,193-4

Looking at some other views on O’Sullivan and his work, sequenced largely by date:

Arnold Gassan (1972, p.108) writes, “One becomes conscious, on examining O’Sullivan’s photographs, of physical scale: he found ways to provide a human reference so that the immense formations of the Utah and Arizona deserts are impressive and of inhuman scale … His pictures are usually handsome shapes on the page while still being extremely faithful to the spirit of the subject.”

Lewis Baltz, writing in 1975, identifies a line of progression from O’Sullivan through the Bechers and Ruscha to Robert Adams in a review of the later’s The New West project (Baltz, 2012, pp.33-37) and adds, “Adams claims pioneer photographer Timothy O’Sullivan as an antecedent” (p.33).

Kelsey (2003. p.720) quotes John Szarkowski from Looking at Photographs: 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art (1973, p.34), lauding O’Sullivan’s “intuitively inventive approach to the formal problems of photography”.

Graham Clarke (1997, p.59) describes Dunes as, “a quintessential nineteenth-century American Landscape… [but] … in one sense this is an image of nature rather than landscape”: he goes on to analyse its components in formal semiotic terms.

Françoise Heilbrun, writing in Frizot (1998, p.165) describes him a “the first to understand how to bring out the stark beauty and telluric power of these desert and hostile places.”

Gerry Badger (2007, p.131) wrote that O’Sullivan’s “stark photographs are rightly regarded as amongst the most interesting of early landscape photography. They are both uncertain documents and beguiling pictures, and much more personal than their fry appearance suggests … The dichotomy between art and science was always present in O’Sullivan’s work, as it was in that of Carleton Watkins.”

J.A.P. Alexander (2015, p.21) states, “O’Sullivan’s photographs from the Fortieth Parallel Survey [led by Clarence King], however, have been recognized as particularly remarkable contributions to landscape practice. Unlike the pictures of many of his contemporaries, who tended to compose pictures with the conventions of the picturesque frame, O’Sullivan’s exaggerated and aggressive compositions revealed a relationship to the land. that was perhaps a little closer to the truth of it being inhospitable and unwelcoming to the trespassing expeditionaries.”

Robin Kelsey‘s paper on O’Sullivan in the Art Bulletin (2003, pp.702–723) analyses his survey photographs in detail, speculates on his approach and motives, describes the Wheeler expedition’s organisation and funding and comments on the divergence of critical reaction to his work.
He concludes that Wheeler (of a military background competing for funding against professionals in the field) and O’Sullivan (an experienced war photographer with no scientific or surveying expertise) worked together to compensate for their surveying shortcomings by illustrating the expedition reports and supplementary albums with images designed to appeal to those controlling the funding (p.715).
O’Sullivan tailored his photographic technique and his choice of subject matter to match in utility and exceed in attractiveness those of his rivals and “devised a specialised pictoral rhetoric” to reinforce the expedition’s worth and the contribution photography could make to it (p.702).
Using the example of the White House (fig.B2) Kelsey shows how O’Sullivan included survey members in the images both to give a practical sense of scale and to show them at work. The rock formations above the White House correspond to hand-drawn illustrations in the expedition report (p.709).
As regards critical and theoretical opinions on O’Sullivan’s photographs, Kelsey characterises this as a dispute between the modernists and the contextualists, both parties having either misrepresented or misunderstood O’Sullivan’s work.

Jae Emerling (2011, pp.153-8) draws on both Kelsey and Rosalind Krauss (see below and exercise 1.2) to evaluate O’Sullivan and concludes that some theorists assert that survey photography in general should be excluded from the pantheon of art photography because it is a specific application of the medium that was conceived for a practical rather than an aesthetic purpose and that O’Sullivan and Atget as exemplars of their objection.

Snyder is amongst a body of critics that regard O’Sullivan as inferior to his contemporaries (both Ansel Adams and the writers of this course material are in that camp, some 80 years apart). But clearly, there are critics willing to accept and laud O’Sullivan’s work on both technical and aesthetic grounds, both prior to and long after Snyder’s 2002 essay.

There are three axes of cleavage on O’Sullivan’s work, the technical, the aesthetic and the doctrinal.
Technically, Ansel Adams described him as “deficient” (Snyder, p.192) and while there is no weight of positive comment on this aspect (Kelsey describes “O’Sullivan’s apparent disregard for the exquisiteness of his own pictures … [the] cropped bodies, uneven horizons” p.713) it does not concern those who prioritise other merits.
Æsthetically, the course material quotes Jeffrey’s description of “alien, inhospitable and unwelcoming” (1981, p.60) and Snyder describes a “‘freak show’ of unnatural forms that are at the same time entirely natural” (p.196). While there is a general consensus that O’Sullivan’s survey photography is nonconformist (“remarkable contributions to landscape practice”, Alexander, 2015, p.21) they can also be regarded as “[bringing] out the stark beauty and telluric power of these desert and hostile places” (Heilbrun, in Frizot, 1998, p.165).
Theoretically, O’Sullivan has been dismissed because his work was undertaken for a mundane technical purpose rather than with a predominantly æsthetic intention, however, Kelsey (2003, p.715) has shown that O’Sullivan was employed to and worked with the intention of adding an æsthetic gloss to the expedition reports.

C19th print finishing – Watkins – O’Sullivan – Krauss – Part 2

4During his discussion of O’Sullivan, Snyder criticises Krauss’s 1982 essay, Photography’s Discursive Spaces which formed part of Exercise 1.2. Krauss argued that O’Sullivan’s work (and that of other survey photographers) should not be regarded as or displayed as art because, as Snyder puts it, “the ‘discursive space’ of an expeditionary photographer was not the same as the ‘discursive space’ of a Parisian painter” and that their original scientific purpose even “precludes an investigation of their pictoral character” (Snyder pp.191-2).

Snyder observes that Krauss’ underlying assumption is incorrect because O’Sullivan had no scientific pedigree and the leaders of his major expeditions (King and Wheeler) both stated that photography “was incapable of producing pictures useful for the purposes of measurement and quantification” (Snyder, p.192). Furthermore, as seen above, Kelsey establishes that both Wheeler and O’Sullivan regarded his function on the expedition to be providing images to enhance the reputation of, draw attention to and help justify the funding for the survey, not as part of its technical and scientific purpose.

C19th print finishing – Watkins – O’Sullivan – Krauss – Part 2

Part 2

Next, find and evaluate two photographs by any of the photographers Snyder mentions, but not specific examples that he addresses in the essay. Your evaluation ( up to 250 words for each) should reflect some of the points that Snyder makes, as well as any other references.

LP&E, p.66

5 The two images to be discussed are O’Sullivan’s Black Cañon…, 1871 and Watkins’ Vernal Fall, Yosemite, 1865–66.

In “reflect[ing] some of the points that Snyder makes” (LP&E, p.66 ), I will pick up on some of the comments Snyder made about other pieces by O’Sullivan and Watkins and examine whether they are borne out in these images.

Image sources:
fig. C1 The Met, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/264711
fig. C2 Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carleton_Watkins_(American_-Piwyac,_or_the_Vernal_Fall_at_low_water,_300_feet,_Yosemite_Valley,_Mariposa_County,_Cal.-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
fig. C3 NGA, https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.92228.html
fig. C4 The Met, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/260314

Carleton E. Watkins, Vernal Fall, Yosemite, 1865–66

Watkins’ Vernal Fall (fig. C2) is a black and white, portrait-format image showing a waterfall in the middle distance with the camera located overlooking a rocky stream that leads from the fall. Watkins made several photographs from around this location (see also fig. C3), including a stereo pair (fig. C4).

What at first sight might have been the shadow of the photographer on the water at the bottom of fig. C1 is unlikely because a) there is no evidence in the other photographs seen by the writer of Watkins being so indulgent; b) shadows are difficult to read in this image, but there are no others suggesting a low sun from the left; c) long exposure times for wet plate photographs (PBS n.d.) create motion-blurred moving water rather than delineated shadows. This feature is likely to be a manifestation of water flow.

Snyder (in Mitchell, 2002, pp.187, 188) describes Watkins’ ability to show “smoothness and seamlessness of tonal gradation” and ” showing “the scene just as it looked by emphasizing pictorial coherence and integrity” (in this case, just as it looked apart from the motion-blurred water, that is) and Vernal Fall is a prime example of both Watkins’ craft and his art. In a Christies’ sale of a photograph from this series (2015), the lot essay described Watkins’ “harmonious compositions in which the monumental landscape forms create stunning structure and balance … [and] acute formal aesthetic and advanced technical prowess”.
(Estimate USD 30,000 – USD 50,000, Price realised USD 32,500.)
[250 words]

Timothy O’Sullivan, Black Cañon, From Camp 8, Looking Above 1871

O’Sullivan’s Black Cañon… is a black and white, landscape-format image showing a lake in the middleground, hills or mountains in the distance, and a rock-strewn shoreline in the foreground. Moored at the water’s edge is a small sailing boat, prow to the right, with a black tent in the bow (we know from written accounts that this is O’Sullivan’s darkroom). There is a person sitting towards the centre, facing the stern of the boat, concentrating on something on their lap, their left leg on dry land. The shadows suggest that the sun is to the right of frame. The long exposure times needed for wet plate photography (PBS n.d.) have resulted in the smooth blurring of the water’s surface.

In my response to Snyder’s essay above, I used this image to help refute his several criticisms of O’Sullivan’s work. The list includes:
using “figures … to underscore the unhappiness of the relation between human beings and the vast and barren landscape” (p.196);
“pictures antipicturesque in most of their details” (p.197);
portraying a “bleak, inhospitable land, a godforsaken, anaesthetising landscape” (p.191).

All Snyder’s judgments are subjective and substantiate Grundberg’s assertion that, “photographic meaning [is] contingent rather than absolute” (2021, p.8). Snyder himself implicitly confirms this when he states, patronisingly, that the images “often achieve a sublime, breathtaking character and doubtless can be analyzed formally, in terms of some of the tropes of the sublime” (p.197). Some writers as quoted in the main body of this exercise, simply accept the quality, value and effectiveness of O’Sullivan’s work, rather than rest on dogma, see Gassan, Kelsey, Szarkowski, Clarke, Heilbrun, Badger and Alexander above.
[270 words]

LPE Exc 2.1 References

Alexander, JAP (2015) Perspectives on place. London: Bloomsbury.

Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Badger, G. (2007) The genius of photography. London: Quadrille Publishing.

Baltz, L. (1975) The New West, in Baltz, L. (ed.), 2012, Lewis Baltz Texts, Göttingen: Steidl, pp.33-37.

Christies’ (2015) CARLETON E. WATKINS (1829-1916) Vernal Fall, 300 ft., Yosemite Valley, 1878-1881 [online]. christies.com. Available from https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-5880832 [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. Oxford: OUP.

Emerling, J. (2011) Photography: History and Theory . London: Routledge.

Frizot, M. (ed.) (1998) A new history of photography. Cologne: Könemann.

Gassan, A. (1972) A chronology of photography. Athens, Ohio: Arnold Gassan Handbook Company.

Grundberg, A. (2021) How photography became contemporary art. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

Kelsey, RE. (2003). Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74. The Art Bulletin, 85(4), 702–723. [online]. doi.org.Available from https://doi.org/10.2307/3177366 [Accessed 9 December 2020].

Krauss, R. (1982) Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View, in Bolton, R (ed.) The contest of meaning, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 286-302.

Mitchell, WJT, (ed) Landscape and Power (2nd ed) (2002) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Newhall, B (1964) The history of photography. London: Secker & Warburg.

Newhall, B (1982) The history of photography. London: Secker & Warburg.

PBS (n.d.) Wet-Plate Photography [online]. pbs.org. Available from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eastman-wet-plate-photography/ [Accessed 15 December 2021].

Snyder, J. (2002) Territorial Photography, in Mitchell (2002, pp.175-201).