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Art Institute of Chicago Presents Timothy H. O’Sullivan. The King Survey Photographs

The Art Institute of Chicago presents Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs on view October 22, 2011–January 15, 2012.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840–1882) was one of the most important American photographers of the nineteenth century. While employed by Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner, O’Sullivan made iconic images of the American Civil War. After the war, O’Sullivan served as the official photographer for three U.S. government survey expeditions: the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (or “King Survey”) of 1867–69 and 1872; the Darien (Isthmus of Panama) Expedition of 1870; and the Geological Surveys West of the 100th Meridian (or “Wheeler Survey”) of 1871 and 1873–74. His images of the West are of great historical and artistic significance: working alongside geologists, naturalists, and surveyors, O’Sullivan produced some of the earliest and most influential photographs of the American frontier.

O’Sullivan’s work in the King Survey—which covered an 800-mile-long swath of land, roughly straddling the path of the transcontinental rail route, from southern Wyoming to the California line—is of particular importance to his career and to the history of American photography. His photographs of barren landscapes, notable or curious geological formations, and mining operations represent a raw, powerful vision of this little-understood territory increasingly occupied by white Americans. In addition, these images have remained challenging touchstones in photographic history—a perfect, if enigmatic, union of documentary and artistic intentions, fact and interpretation. While a few of these images have been widely reproduced, original prints are remarkably rare. Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs includes photographs contextualized with contemporaneous survey reports and topographical and geological atlases that show visual depictions of the land across media.

Image: Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Pyramid Lake, c. 1867–69. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc.

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