1.2 Rosalind Krauss and Timothy O’Sullivan: Photography’s Discursive Spaces

In 1982 Roslind Krauss, art critic and art history teacher, wrote Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape / View (1); an essay that challenged whether the survey photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan (i) should be discussed in the context of art, in essence whether they are landscapes or views.

O’Sullivan had made his name as a battlefield photographer during the Civil War but the work that interested Krauss and that had previously attracted positive critical review was the body of work he produced as a member of four survey teams in the period between 1867 and 1873 (i). Some of these photographs illustrated the various reports prepared by those teams, were included in government published pamphlets and distributed in albums but were only used commercially as stereographs. This contrasts the methodology of other “Western” photographers like Carleton Watkins whose work was always intended as the basis of commercial prints.

Left: Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, In a Niche Fifty Feet Above Present Cañon Bed - Timothy O'Sullivan 1873 Right: White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Ansel Adams 1942

Left: Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, In a Niche Fifty Feet Above Present Cañon Bed – Timothy O’Sullivan 1873
Right: White House Ruin, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona. Ansel Adams 1942

O’Sullivan had faded into obscurity until the 1930s when Ansel Adams came across an 1874 album of his work that included a photograph of Canyon de Chelly in New Mexico; an image that would have such an effect on Adams that he would photograph the scene from the same vantage point in 1942. Adams thought O’Sullivan’s work was prescient:

“technically deficient even by the standards of the time, but nonetheless, surrealistic and disturbing” (3: p.192)

Adams sent the photographs to his friend Beaumont Newhall, who in 1939, was the acting curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York having organised the MOMA’s first great photographic exhibition in 1937. Newhall was impressed by O’Sulivan’s work and with what he saw as the character of the man; in his great work The History of Photography he describes him as “one of the most daring of the war photographs” and provides a detailed account of his various expeditions. According to Snyder, Newhall saw O’Sullivan as a “prototypical modernist” (3: p.192) and in his histories he places him on a par with Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson, the more famous figures of his age. Twenty years later John Szarkowski described O’Sullivan’s work as “possessing the qualities of poise, clarity of purpose and natural beauty” (5); and, more recently as just one of many examples of critical acclaim, Gerry Badger, whilst accepting that his survey photographs contained a “dichotomy between art and science” (6: p.131) explained that he was capable of:

“Investing them with a credible mediation upon nature and man’s place in it. He had an eye, and his stark photographs are rightly regraded as amongst the most interesting of early landscape photography. They are both uncertain documents and beguiling pictures, and much more personal than their rather dry appearance suggests.” (6: p.131)

It was through these and other critics that an obscure survey photographer escaped from the archives to become established as part of art photography’s history. So, on what basis does Krauss attempt to upset the apple cart of photographic critisicm and how well do her arguments stand up?

Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada - Timothy H. O'Sullivan 1867

Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada – Timothy H. O’Sullivan 1867

Krauss’ arguments initially revolve around O’Sullivan’s 1867 study of Pyramid Lake in Nevada. In her essay she includes the original print, about which she is highly complementary, and a later lithograph, about which she is wholly negative, of the same picture. Her comparison between the two highlights that the lithograph, which illustrated Clarence King’s geological survey report in 1868, brings a level of detail to the print that demotes the picture from “strange to commonplace” (1). The original photograph may probably featured in albums and potentially pamphlets before slipping quietly into the Government archive that held the survey material and where it lay dormant until found by the aforementioned art historians in and after 1939.

Krauss proceeds to place these versions of the same picture into two distinctly separate discursive spaces, the original O’Sullivan print, is in her view part of the discourse of the exhibition, the gallery or museum wall, and in that context viewed as art; the lithograph is part of the discourse of geology and therefore “empirical science”. She does not suggest that the original print was ever, in O’Sullivan’s mind, destined for the gallery but that photographic art historians have subsequently positioned it within that discursive space. Krauss believes that, as O’Sullivan was only intending to produce scientific, topographical photographs that were originally published as such then this, and any other of his survey photographs, can only be viewed as scientific photographs.

Looking at O’Sullivan’s survey work in the round identifies potential flaws in Krauss’ argument; for example Krauss states they were only distributed in scientific reports or as stereograms. Jeanne Willette, whilst agreeing that we cannot show that O’Sullivan distinguished between scientific and exhibition work when capturing his images, points out that the survey photographs were not only included as illustrations in the expedition reports but were, at the time, published and circulated in photographic albums. (7) and in pamphlets; a point supported by Gerry Badger and Martin Parr’s histories of the photobook which include a US Government pamphlet of O’Sullivan’s 1874-5 survey photographs as an example of early photobooks (8: p.46).

Whilst the Tufa Domes photograph was taken on his first expedition if we continue to consider Krauss’ views in the context of his whole body of survey work, then we must assume that such an experienced surveyor knew how the system worked, he would have foreseen that any given photograph might be published or distributed  in any mix of stereograms, albums, pamphlets and reports; we have no way of knowing whether this coloured his approach to his photography but it seems unlikely. However, he would have known that his work would be seen in albums and pamphlets; in contemporary terms his photographs were destined for prototype photobooks, discursive spaces in the broad discourse of art photography along with galleries and museums.

After looking at only one, of many, points in her argument we are already entering a maze. When recently discussing some of O’Sullivan’s contemporaries Robert Silberman wrote:

“What is the relationship between an original photographic print, a high quality reproduction in a book, a high resolution image on a screen and a high quality digital print? The answer is complicated.” (9)

Silberman’s comments, written twenty years after Krauss’ essay, highlight that we cannot join the ninetieth centuries favourite art or science game in regard to photography and expect simple answers. O’Sullivan’s Tufa Domes photograph simultaneously occupies many discursive spaces, a discourse of science – that no longer holds any relevance as more accurate geological surveys have been carried out since 1867 – and then a whole list of discourses that we would associate with art: galleries, art histories, art essays, art prints and photobooks; but beyond this it now exists on the internet in thousands of different digital spaces, a wild-west as poorly understood and mapped as nineteenth century Nevada. Krauss’ view that the 1930’s and later critics perverted the history of art by re-classifying O’Sullivan’s work and her insistence that we must be “certain of what discourse they belong to” ignores the fluidity of context that existed in 1982 let alone 2017

To summarise the case so far: there are two reasons why we cannot judge O’Sullivan’s work as art or science in the terms that Krauss uses. Firstly, if we are to accept acquired wisdom in regard to the relationship between context and meaning Tufa Domes exists in a plethora of parallel discourses which are ever expanding and changing in nature, it is simultaneously both art and science and other things besides. And, secondly, Barthes argued convincingly that he had seen the death of the author, the ownership of meaning having moved to the audience (10: p.142) which implies that O’Sullivan’s intent, even if we accept he saw his work as scientific, is irrelevant.

Washakie Badlands, Wyoming - Timothy O'Sullivan 1872

Washakie Badlands, Wyoming – Timothy O’Sullivan 1872

We can turn to her supplementary arguments which are perhaps easier to rebut. Krauss defines an artist as someone who has qualified after serving an apprenticeship, creating a juvenilia and then, through a process of success and failure goes on to compile an oeuvre that represents an “individuated view” (1); there is whiff of art critic prejudice in setting the bar so high, a suggestion that to be a member of Krauss’ recognised artists’ club you first need to be in your dotage and ideally have learnt your craft in a Renaissance-like studio. Few contemporary artists and even less photographers would gain membership under such terms. Apart from these criteria excluding precocious talents like Francesca Woodman, Richard Billingham, and Elina Brotherus who all produced significant work in their early twenties, subjectively I would argue that Robert Mapplethorpe, Walker Evans, Don McCullin, David Hurn and Ansel Adams produced their best work before entering their forties non of whom served apprenticeships other than in the field with a camera in hand.

Krauss also has, in her mind the size of the perfect oeuvre although she doesn’t quantify this thought, Eugene Atget’s was too large at 10,000 works, which certainly leaves Garry Winogrand out in the cold who quite apart from the work he published left sixty-five hundred unprocessed rolls of film when he died. Once again Krauss attempts to judge photography in the terms of fine art painting. The processes of the two mediums are too radically different to allow sensible comparison, a photographer may take hundreds of photographs in the development of a concept, if your conceptual playground is the streets of New York, hundreds will become thousands and even those published or exhibited may run to very large numbers. Quantity may even play a part in the concept as it does with the street work of Hans Eijkelboom (12) (see here). At the other end of the scale Krauss dismisses August Salzmann who only published one book of photographs.

The art or science argument, intellectually stimulating as it might be, is archaic and irrelevant in the context of contemporary photography. Adam Bell argues that what makes photography “interesting” partly lies in it being:

“a matrix for so many varying activities and practices from the artistic and personal to scientific and documentary. Seeing these paths and intentions intersect is endlessly fascinating” (13)

Photography is a fluid and ever evolving medium that by its very nature and accessibility opens endless opportunities for it to play a part in a broad range of activities. Classification and categorisation are at times useful when considering a body of work but throughout photography’s history practitioners have, by necessity maintained personal, artistic and commercial streams of work.

New York Still Life (Elements of a Party), editorial photograph for Vogue - Irving Penn 1947

New York Still Life (Elements of a Party), editorial photograph for Vogue – Irving Penn 1947

A good example might be Irving Penn who sits near the pinnacle of fashion and advertising photography whilst simultaneously being acclaimed for his remarkable personal still life projects. How can we differentiate between a still life created under commission for an advertisement and one undertaken as a personal project? Penn’s unique vision overarches his oeuvre so aesthetics will give few clues to the differing origins and intentions and we will find both published or exhibited in the discursive space of art. To take Krauss’ arguments to their obvious conclusion, New York Still Life must be forever more excluded from the discourse of still life art because Penn’s intent was to fulfil a commission for a Vogue editorial.

Our initial assessment of O’Sullivan’s survey work would probably identify it as an early example of documentary photography; they appear to be straight images that show his subjects plainly and simply, what Bate cites Jacques Rancière as calling a “naked image”, “an image that was not intended as art but which ends up as art because of its document-like qualities.” (14: p.11) However, whilst “plainly and simply” suggests artlessness and without aesthetic pretensions, it is unrealistic to over stress these attributes. George Rodger who captured some of the photographs that revealed the true horror of Bergen-Belsen, photographs that Rancière used to exemplify naked images, was horrified to find himself arranging corpses in “harmonious compositions” within the frame (6: p.92). In practice the photographers instinct is to compose their pictures partly because, for the most part, even the most factually orientated photo-journalist understands that to communicate effectively a documentary or news photograph should aspire to being “as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” (16)

Witches Rock - Timothy O'Sullivan 1869

Witches Rock – Timothy O’Sullivan 1869

Witches Rock - Rick Dingus 1978

Witches Rock – Rick Dingus 1978

Recent research has shown that O’Sullivan was not always factually recording the “views” that Krauss so dislikes.

Rick Dingus was part of a 1978 expedition to rephotograph the surveys of the 1860’s. (17) His work revealed that O’Sullivan’s vantage points and camera angles often contradicted the conventions of straight photography.

For example Dingus showed that to achieve his composition of Witches Rock O’Sullivan had to tilt his heavy, wet plate camera, an unusual action in the 1860s. This potentially provides an insight into his intent; I have previously mentioned Carleton Watkins, who Joel Snyder believes “set the standard for commercial landscape photographs of the American West”, a standard that was “emulated by nearly every important photographer of the West up to and including Ansel Adams (3: p.183) but if we consider Watkins or Adams work we generally see a landscape ripe for tourism, habitation, colonisation, exploitation, what Snyder calls landscape as “potential real estate” (3: p.185), this is not to say they present the West as a soft, green and pleasant land nor was Adams calling for exploitation, far from it he was a committed conservationist, but they present the American West as a new Eden, a place crying out for new humans – remember that Native Americans had long populated this land – to take it and shape it for economic or recreational purposes.

Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada - Timothy O'Sullivan 1867

Desert Sand Hills near Sink of Carson, Nevada – Timothy O’Sullivan 1867

In contrast to the approach of Watkins, Adams and the other conventional landscape photographers of the West O”Sullivan presents a more complex, ambiguous and beguiling landscape. He portrays a harsh unwelcoming land, often excluding features that might soften the challenging geology. In Desert Sand Hills O’Sullivan moved his mobile dark room onto the dune before turning and pointing it back out of the frame, we can see his footprints leading from the wagon to his vantage point; the picture speaks of endless dunes, the very position of the wagon engaged in a u-turn emphasises that the terrain is impassable, it meets Newhall’s Modernist values by heroising the work of the photographer but it is a misleading composition; according to Snyder he has selected his vantage point and positioned his camera to exclude any sight of the non-desert landscape that typically surrounds the occasional outcrops of sand in the area (3: p.194).

Inscription Rock, New Mexico - Timothy O'Sullivan 1873

Inscription Rock, New Mexico – Timothy O’Sullivan 1873

This theme of a harsh, unforgiving land runs through many examples of his work but beyond that there is also the surrealism, first identified by Adams as seen in the seemingly suspended Tufa Rocks that float not on water but in some undefined ethereal space; and the studies of hard edges, deep shadows and alien, often looming shapes of imposing rock outcrops that Willette interprets as an abstract representation of the land. (7) The terms of reference of these early surveys was unquestionably investigative, exploratory and scientific yet O’Sullivan deviated from providing forensic records of the landscape and begun to interpret the land and reveal his emotional reaction towards it. The work of Dingus in the 1970s challenges not just the view of Krauss that this work was scientific but challenges any idea that O’Sullivan was working within the, then accepted, conventions of landscape photography, or that he saw his work as promotional material for a Government keen to push West, that is as propaganda.

If O’Sullivan thought at all about his audience, I believe his work was aimed to instil in  them a sense of awe, of the sublime nature of the West, to warn them of its perils and unfriendly nature; his survey work was a highly personal interpretation of a landscape that astonished him; an idea that sounds every similar to Krauss’  “individuated view” that she insists an artist’s body of work must represent if we are to take them seriously. As such perhaps he should recognise O’Sullivan as one of the most important of the early landscape photographers and continue to consider his survey work within the discursive space of art.

Notes on Text

(i) Timothy O’Sullivan’s career had begun in 1858 when as an eighteen year old he joined Mathew Brady’s New York studio as an apprentice; he later moved to Brady’s Washington studio which was managed by Alexander Gardner, another photographer who would become know for his documentation of the Civil War. In 1861 at the age of twenty one he joined Brady’s team of Civil War photographers subsequently leaving with Gardner, who had fallen out with Brady (4: p.91), and for whom he worked for the rest of the war. In 1867 O’Sullivan was employed by Clarence King who had been directed by the Department of War “to direct a geological and topographical exploration of the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, including the route or routes of the Pacific railroad.” (2). In 1870 he was photographing in Panama for the Thomas Selfridge’s Darien Expedition and in 1871 he joined another survey team, this time under the leadership of Lieutenant George M. Wheeler of the U.S. Corps of Engineers. Wheeler’s survey was intended as a practical exploration of the West with a view to identifying potential routes for roads and railways and the opening up of the West. In 1873 O’Sullivan, still working for Wheeler, led an expedition to investigate the Zuni and Magia pueblos and the Canyon de Chelly. (2)



(3) Snyder, Joel (2002) Territorial Photography (included as an essay  in Landscape and Power, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

(4) Newhall, Beaumont (1982) The History of Photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art

(6) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(8) Parr, Martin and Badger, Gerry (2004) The Photobook: A History volume I. London: Phaidon

(10) Barthes, Roland (1977) Image Music Text. London: Fontana Press

(11) Rubinfien, Leo (2013) Garry Winogrand. New Haven and London: Yale University Press

(12) Eijkelboom, Hans (2014) People of the Twenty First Century. London: Phaidon

(14) Bate, David (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.


(1) Krauss, Rosalind (1982) Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape / View (accessed at College Art Association 15.1.17) – http://macaulay.cuny.edu/eportfolios/lklichfall13t/files/2013/09/Krauss.pdf

(2) Foresta, Merry A. (1996) Timothy H. O’Sullivan (accessed at the Smithsonian American Art Museum Renwick Gallery 17.1.17) – http://americanart.si.edu/collections/search/artist/?id=3600

(5) Goldberg, Vicki (1997) After 29 Years of Displaying Others’ Work, John Szarkowski Returns to His Own (accessed at The New York Times 18.1.17) – http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/09/books/after-29-years-of-displaying-others-work-john-szarkowski-returns-to-his-own.html

(7) Willette, Jeanne (2015) Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882) Part Two (accessed at Art History Unstuffed 15.1.17) – http://arthistoryunstuffed.com/debating-timothy-osullivan-1840-1882-part-two/

(9) Silberman, Robert (2014) Weston Naef and Christine Hult-Lewis,
Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs. (accessed at Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide 15.1.17) http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn14/silberman-reviews-carleton-watkins-the-complete-mammoth-photographs

(13) Bell, Adam (2012) Timothy H O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs (accessed at Photo-Eye 15.1.17) – http://blog.photoeye.com/2012/04/photo-eye-book-reviews-timothy-h.html

(16) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism (accessed at EPUK – 15.11.14) http://www.epuk.org/the-curve/ethics-and-photojournalism

(17) Dingus, Rick (1978) Rephotographic Survey Project (accessed at the photographer’s website 15.1.17) – http://rickdingus.com/rephotographic_survey_project.php

Willette, Jeanne (2015) Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882) Part One (accessed at Art History Unstuffed 15.1.17) – http://arthistoryunstuffed.com/timothy-osullivan-1840-1882/

Willette, Jeanne (2015) Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840 – 1882) Part Three (accessed at Art History Unstuffed 15.1.17) – http://arthistoryunstuffed.com/debating-timothy-osullivan-part-three/

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