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A View of America’s Past: Timothy O’Sullivan’s King Survey Photographs

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri is known for showing works that have had significant impact on the American mindset. Its current exhibit of “The King Survey Photographs” by Timothy H. O’Sullivan is one such body of work. Taken between 1867 and 1872 as well as 1868 and 1869, the King Survey photographs were part of an exploration of land in Wyoming, California, Nevada, and parts of Idaho and Utah. Led by a geologist, the survey accomplished scientific, political and commercial goals, and gave O’Sullivan an opportunity to photograph the wild landscapes, burgeoning settlements, and the railroads crossing through and connecting them.

O’Sullivan was one of the most well-respected photographers of the 19th century. He began his career working with Mathew Brady and earned acclaim for his photography during the Civil War. In 1880 he was appointed the official photographer of the Department of Treasury. His King Survey work is considered his most important, and was key in changing how Americans think about land as well as landscape photography.

I was fascinated by the glimpse into the past this exhibition provides. The vast landscapes without telephone poles, airplanes, or other man-made impact engage the eyes with their incredible level of detail in stone formations, shadows, water ripples and other natural scenic elements. Being able to see the now-vast city of Salt Lake in its infant stage as a small town was a visible reminder of just how much America has grown over the decades.

O’Sullivan’s photographs also interested me because of how they showed the history of the photographic process. The way one man’s head in a group shot would be blurry because he hadn’t held still during the plate’s exposure reminded me just how much patience and effort was required to take even one photograph back then. Also featured in the photographs was O’Sullivan’s portable dark room, a wheeled contraption pulled by a team of horses. The care and effort O’Sullivan had to put into creating the King Survey images is truly astounding.

“The King Survey Photographs” will be on display at the Nelson-Atkins through September 2, 2012.