Scholars vs. Photographers



In my effort to leave no stone unturned in my readings on O’Sullivan I sometimes come across texts that make me sort of shake my head–and then there are those that remind me of the great gulf between the people who make photographs and the people who study photographs.

Robin Kelsey, apparently a lawyer turned art historian now teaching at Harvard, is one of those people who study photographs and I can’t help thinking he might benefit from a year or two in the field, with a camera.

I’m reading Archive Style: Photographs & Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850-1890 which I purchased off Amazon at the rather princely sum of $50.  Expensive but how can I leave a stone unturned in my quest for information on O’Sullivan?

Kelsey makes an interesting case: That the style of photographs made by O’Sullivan (let’s put aside the subtleties of defining the word “style”) were influenced, perhaps even largely a function, of the bureaucracy that funded the expedition, accepted and edited and published his images. That O’Sullivan wasn’t an preternatural modernist, anticipating what was to come nor did he merely extrapolate the styles of Romantic landscape painters. O’Sullivan’s work, in this line of thinking, is a sort of mixture of the power projection of the bureaucracy blended with O’Sullivan’s challenges to that power, resulting in a third way, the Archive Style.

Yes, yes, it’s sort of a postmodern paint-by-numbers set where we discover that photographs aren’t what we think they are but are instead evidence–and the very devices–of power relationships and that those power relationships can be deciphered by one attuned to these subtleties.

I suspect this is the sort of stuff Marxists do now that Marxism isn’t so cool anymore.

Let me quote a paragraph from the book:

This book contends to the contrary that the instrumentality of surveys was crucial to the emergence of a new pictorial style. The practical imperatives and social organization of survey work spurred pictorial innovation. This is not to say that Romanticism never entered into the equation; at times it did. But the forgotten piece of the puzzle is the historical capacity of surveys to foster graphic experiment. There was strange new work to be done, and a rich array of new graphic techniques and ideas with which to do it. The modernistic qualities of survey pictures are neither anticipations of modernism nor anachronistic impositions. They are traces of a crafty and at times brilliant response to a modern predicament. The reasons why O’Sullivan made a photograph emphasizing a flat expense of rock in the Canyon de Chelly were very different from those that inspired Ansel Adams to do the same several decades later. In this book I explain anew the style of survey pictures, not to drain them of romance, but to redefine and resituate their romantic qualities within a dynamic instrumental regime.

And here the reader’s puzzlement begins, starting off small. What does it mean to say that O’Sullivan and Adams have different reasons to photograph the ruins at Canyon de Chelly? Adams, a lone, early proponent of the work of O’Sullivan, made his photograph explicitly intending to shoot the same or nearly the same image as O’Sullivan. So, yes, the reasons that inspired them in this case are most surely different since one was inspired by the other. It seems that something crucial has been missed here but never mind, it is but a small example.


Within a few pages, already quoting Derrida and Foucault, the author gets to the main thread of the argument:

…The survey draftsman or photographer, in depicting the land, anticipated the survey’s needs and also silently addressed his own.  The survey bureaucracy then sorted and organized the pictures, sometimes years afterward, to meet political and institutional demands. If those in command deemed a picture inconsistent with those demands, they tucked it away and kept it from public view. If they deemed a picture suitable, they nonetheless employed means to spin its public meaning. They might add a caption or a legend, or put the picture within a particular sequence of words and images. In converting a photograph to a lithograph or engraving, they might change the composition, expunge unwanted elements, or radically alter a figure’s appearance. Thus the import of a picture often shifted significantly from its initial production to its public display. In the archive, pictures did not have a single moment of production but rather had multiple moments in which various parties exerted their fractional control over the process.

Where does one start to address this sort of thing? To say that a small truth (of course whoever published the work exerted some level of control over it–that is sort of by definition) does not equal a big truth (that it affected O’Sullivan’s pictorial style to any large degree)? To point out that the author has set up a straw man and that no photograph by any well-known photographer has a “single moment of production” and that each has external pressures upon its creation, selection and display, whether it be a government agency, a corporate client, a wealthy patron, or the photographer’s wife. Great stuff for a grad school seminar–get them thinking–but are we really making any progress?

Let’s move from the introductory material to the chapter explicitly about O’Sullivan (there are two other artists discussed as well in separate chapters).

Again, the gulf from practitioner to scholar, at least to certain scholars, can be a wide one, perhaps an insurmountable gulf of mutual incomprehension.

Several pages are spent on the idea that photographs–are you ready for this?–were useful when government agencies went to Congress to ask for appropriations. That is, while scientific reports might be the main focus of the surveys, they were difficult to digest and did not appeal to a wide audience. Photographs, at least provided that they weren’t merely records of an interesting species of bush nor merely recordings of some rock, were interesting to people, including congressmen. They helped build support for the expeditions.

Well, yes. Yes, yes, yes. Why isn’t this obvious?–it was obvious to everyone back in the 1860s. This is maddening stuff to read.

But back to style. O’Sullivan spent some time in those early days of photography and the Civil War making photographs of maps. Maps, as you know, are a sort of God’s-eye view the terrain. And people were familiar with maps and this accounts for something of the modernist look of many of his images. So says Kesley. Hold that thought a moment.

There’s a photograph of an inscription, in Spanish, that O’Sullivan photographed. It is a straight-on shot with a yardstick alongside it, just the sort of thing you encounter innumerable times in scientific field photographs, from the first surveys to the most recent scientific journals. But in the author’s telling, if that is all you see you are missing the point entire:

In depicting the West as coming under the graphic control of the survey, O’Sullivan represented a mode of usurpation. He made this plain in his photograph from El Morro, Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, N.M. In this picture, the yardstick, meant to compensate for the analogical vagueness of photography, puns on the word ruler [emphasis in the original] and encompasses the Spanish inscription of territorial gain through both its greater span and its seemingly absolute range of values. The measurement declares conquest to be the outcome of a conflict on a graphic surface, won here by a superior system of registration. This superiority is a matter less of scope than of the greater generality and clarity of notation. The quirky, hand chiseled characters on the rock stand in stark contrast to the sharp and uniform mark son the yardstick. The survey carries out its conquest not on the stone itself but on the archival surfaces of the photographic negative and its replicas.

The exquisiteness of Historic Spanish Record is disarming. The picture is full of delicate details: the yardstick gingerly propped with plant fragments to lie parallel to the slanting underscore of the inscribed year; the dialogue between “18” as a day and the “18” as a measure of inches in the lateral center of the picture between the yucca leaves. Such details invoke the survey’s care in its graphic translations and conversions, from time to space, and from conquest to measure. Sheer happenstance might explain these touches were it not that O’Sullivan composed another photograph of the same subject. This much less familiar version, which it seem fair to infer was taken first, constituted a perfectly adequate record of the inscription and its dimensions but failed to secure the interplay of lines and numbers that O’Sullivan evidently desired.


So, O’Sullivan couldn’t possibly have been an early modernist but he was instead an early postmodernist? Or could that possibly be a layer of meaning never intended or imagined by O’Sullivan and only a work of imagination by the writer?

Jump back to the Civil War. O’Sullivan makes several images of an outdoor war council. The soldiers are arranged in a rough circle of benches. People are milling about not far outside the ring of seated soldiers. You can see wagons, ready and hitched to horses just beyond that. The picture is taken from a second story of a church looking down on the group.

Now think back to Kesley’s idea that O’Sullivan is grafting the style of map photography (God’s-eye view, flatness) onto pictorial photography. Even more exciting, General Meade is looking at an actual map–self reference! Here we go:

…Such a view of a small and august gathering, rather than a swath of terrain, was novel….Terrain that demanded the elevated perspective of the topographic view was thus present only in representation. By mimicking the hovering eye of cartography in a view of map consultation, O’Sullivan gave the picture a clever reflexivity.

In the 1860s, however, this photograph probably had a disquieting aspect. Viewers were not accustomed to looking down on generals. This picture would have invited the subjection of even the mighty to the ruling gaze of cartography and, more mundanely, would have recalled the lofty perches of sharpshooters. Armed with a newly accurate telescopic rifle and often obscured by a window or hidden in the boughs of a tree, the sharpshooter became a notorious presence during the war, known to kill enemy officers hundreds of yards away. Makers of Civil War pictures responded to this notoriety by featuring sharpshooters in various media, and photographers occasionally resorted to using a dead infantryman when no dead sharpshooter was available. The photograph by O’Sullivan provocatively mingled the perch of the sharpshooter and the aerial locus of cartographic observation. He thus brought celebration of the strategic scope of Grant and Meade to the brink of inversion and tacitly recalled the vulnerability of the generals, and any man, to the new optics of war.



What can one say? What can one make of this? Is it some sort of Sokal Hoax aiming in some way to discredit the University of California Press? Is it something even more subversive, something that to this day has not been discovered as the tongue-in-cheek critique of postmodern analysis that it is? Perhaps a failed monk-like self-immolation to draw attention to not only the divide between practitioners and scholars but between an entire branch of scholarship and evidence-based research itself?

This is not any sort of science but simple story-telling. There is no evidence presented that any contemporaries of O’Sullivan–or anyone at all prior to Kesley–connected the high vantage point of this photograph with a message about sharpshooters, let alone the mortality of man. There’s no evidence presented that anyone before Kesley saw anything other than routine documentation of an interesting engraving at Inscription Rock. To connect dots, no matter how far apart, is not evidence.

Look at the Council of War photo. Imagine you are O’Sullivan. The meeting looks to be a long one. Where do you shoot it from? At tripod height on flat ground there is no satisfying shot. From three sides the lower ranking soldiers or the civilians will block your shot. From behind is no good either. No matter what you do at ground level you’ll have a picture of people’s backs. So you take your smaller camera, the stereo one, and go go up to some sort of window or balcony at the church, which is right there in plain view–which probably already had people on it–and make your shot. In fact yuou stay there a while and make several shots. Not ideal since you are sort of behind the generals and it would be nice to see their faces a little more clearly but good enough and you get a nice 3-D effect in the bargain.

That’s what photographers do, even back in the 1800s.

It’s a parlor game, weaving a tale, the more outlandish the better, from seemingly innocuous beginnings. It can be fun, it can be interesting, and it can fuel an academic career.

But it does nothing to further our understanding of O’Sullivan.