MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

Photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan, 1869:
Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel

Photograph of Echo Canyon, Utah
In 1867 photographer Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) accompanied Clarence King, Geologist-in-Charge, on the Geological Explorations of the Fortieth Parallel expedition, sponsored by the U.S. government. O’Sullivan, who had started as a teenaged apprentice in the New York studios of Matthew Brady, had rapidly progressed to positions of responsibility and between 1861 and 1865 took many of the most striking and best-known photographs of the Civil War. King, a connoisseur of art as well as a geologist and mountaineer, included photography as part of his exploration and description of the American west for artistic as well as scientific purposes.

The expedition, which eventually stretched to three seasons (spring to autumn, in 1867, 1868, and 1869), included 17 civilians, pack animals, a cavalry guard, and a portable darkroom for processing glass plate collodion negatives in the field. Clouds of mosquitoes and debilitating malaria plagued the expedition, and snow-covered, ice-encrusted mountain passes and rampant rivers hampered progress. The travails of O’Sullivan, who succeeded in recording incomparable photographs under horrendous conditions, have become legendary. Wet plates had to be sensitized on the spot, slid into the camera while wet, and developed and fixed within minutes. A century later Ansel Adams remarked that, despite these difficulties, “no modern photographs I have seen so successfully convey the mood of such noble scenes.”

Albumen prints, such as the one reproduced here, depicting Echo Canyon, Utah, were made in a photographic laboratory in Washington, D.C., after the conclusion of the expedition and were published in portfolio editions. For this image O’Sullivan has chosen an angle that illustrates the vertiginous grandeur of western rock formations in addition to providing information about stratigraphy and geological composition.

King’s survey encompassed a band extending about one hundred miles north of the 40th parallel from the western border of Nevada to Denver and the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, skirting the proposed route of the Central Pacific Railroad (already under construction). Surveyors triangulated prominent natural features while O’Sullivan exposed plates. The expressed purpose of the expedition was to ascertain physical characteristics of the region, including mineral resources, flora, fauna, and agricultural potential. Another purpose may have been to identify and map possible strongholds from which Native Americans could mount resistance against the soon-to-come incursion of miners, soldiers, ranchers, farmers, and other white settlers. Such surveys and photographs were ultimately a tool of the policy of westward expansion known as Manifest Destiny.

Landscape photographs made by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Bell during expeditions to the American frontier in the nineteenth century are available for research in the Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118.

Object of the Month: February 2004

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