Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Stunning 19th century photos of the American West

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

The Daily Mail newspaper online has published a series of stunning photos of the American west taken mainly in the 1870s by Timothy O'Sullivan, a pioneer of  U.S. field photography. Click the link to see the marvelous pictures of landscapes, raw towns and mining camps, and portraits of Native Americans.

"Not only was O'Sullivan one of the most intrepid and successful of the U.S. government expedition photographers who roamed the West under appalling conditions in the late 1860s and 1870s," wrote Margaret Regan in the Tucson Weekly wrote in 2003, "he was one of the best of the Civil War photographers. His photos of the war's anonymous dead, lying bloated in the bloody fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere, are emblazoned into the consciousness of Americans."

O'Sullivan,  Regan wrote, worked  with Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner.

Brady had a nasty habit of not crediting his photographers for their work, and Gardner soon broke away from the studio, taking O'Sullivan with him. The young photographer went on to shoot gripping images in the aftermath of most of the war's major battles, from Second Manassas to Appomattox.
"There are no actual battle pictures," Etherton notes. "He did camps, troops and atrocities, not the battle while it was happening. That would have been incredibly hard. With the camera and the wet plate negative in the field, that was not going to happen."
Until the Civil War, photography had been a refined, mostly indoor craft, geared toward people in their Sunday best stopping by the studio for a family portrait. The Civil War changed all that. Its photographers essentially invented photojournalism, though McElroy says they were not always above staging their scenes. In these days, the wet-plate collodion technique required them to haul around a portable darkroom--the soldiers nicknamed them the "what-is-it wagons"--to develop the glass negatives right after shooting the image. 
The drill, says McElroy, went like this: Set up the camera. Quickly coat a glass plate with gooey collodion. Put the glass in a plateholder. Insert it in the camera, expose it for some seconds. Rush the plate to the darkroom tent and immediately bathe it in the developer chemicals and the fixer.
Later, he accompanied survey and exploration missions into the West.

In 1867, Clarence King, a 25-year-old Yale graduate, hired the Irish tough guy for his Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. Funded by the War Department, the plan was to survey the unexplored territory between the California Sierras and the Rockies, with an eye toward finding the best place to lay railroad tracks while gauging mining possibilities and the level of Indian hostility. In May, the party sailed to Panama, crossed the jungle by narrow-gauge railroad and continued on to San Francisco. There, O'Sullivan bought a leftover war ambulance to serve as his traveling darkroom, and four mules to haul it. 
Beginning the climb up the Sierra Nevada mountains in July, the team crossed the Donner Pass at night, "when the mountain air froze (the snow) into a crust firm enough to support them," writes Snyder. Most of the crew, excluding O'Sullivan, came down with malaria in a mosquito-plagued valley, and King himself was struck by lightning on Job's Peak and was temporarily paralyzed.

No comments: