Imagine the Colorado River snaking through the Grand Canyon a hundred years ago. Or coming upon a great waterfall that rose higher than the Niagara. Or seeing rocks that looked like pyramids leading off into the horizon. This is the landscape Timothy O'Sullivan hiked into in the late 1800s. And he had a camera.
For the next two months, you can see O'Sullivan's photographs of the western beauty he surveyed, on display at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum. It's the largest installation of his prints exhibited in one place since 1876.
O'Sullivan found himself in the pristine landscape of the west after being hired by Clarence King, who was conducting a survey of the west and needed a photographer to help document the land.
During this six-year assignment, O'Sullivan helped discover the Shoshone Falls. The photographs capture more than a vista of falling water. As you study each print you see that O'Sullivan was doing more than documenting land. He was capturing the emotion one feels when in the presence of such a view.
It was probably a great relief from the images he had been capturing. Prior to this assignment, O'Sullivan was a war photographer with Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Together they captured the horror of the Civil War. After spending four years assigned to the Army of the Potomac, O'Sullivan, finding himself in the vast and powerful stillness of the Humboldt Range or the Horseshoe Canyon, must have found hope that the land can hold more than man's carnage.
"Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan" is on display until May 9. The gallery is designed to reflect the timelessness of O'Sullivan's work. It's not a look backward -- instead, we have 80 illustrations of that moment when we are awed by nature's simple rugged beauty and can hear it resonate deeply within.