Archive Style (Robin Kelsey, 2007)

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840–1882), Black Cañon, From Camp 8, Looking Above, 1871, Albumen silver print from glass negative, 20 x 28.1 cm (7 7/8 x 11 1/16 in. ) Photo: Public Domain/ Metropolitan Museum of New York

Survey photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan, is known for depicting the atrocities of the American Civil War and in leading an elite team of engineers on an expedition to the lands west of the United States. The second chapter of Robin Kelsey’s Archive Style invites us to think not only about Sullivan’s deceptively straightforward photography of ecology—photography which has natural elements as formal qualities—but also the ecology of photography; that is, the production of photographic images as things in the world. Elsewhere Kelsey writes that art historians shouldn’t “fall prey to a photograph’s window-like depiction of the world”[1] and argues that to fail to visualize the photographic process in one form or another is to suppress the “awareness of photography’s participation in our profligate economy.”[2] Keenly aware of the encumbrances faced by photographers of O’ Sullivan’s time, Kelsey offers a new way of thinking about photographs as products of the interactions between East coast capital and settler-colonial interests.[3] Kelsey roots the modernistic qualities to the logistics of surveys and argues that O’Sullivan’s photographs of flora were made for promotional rather than purely taxonomic purposes.[4] Offering the conclusion that O’Sullivan was responding to bureaucratic requirements for proof of completion of government projects and to encourage government funding of costly expeditions. In contrast to more anthropocentric narratives that are preponderant in the analysis of photographic practice, Kelsey is concerned with the question of how landscape photographs can capture ecological relationships; a worthwhile investigation for the present in light of increasing detachment of digital photography from materiality and the prevailing trend of landscape photography being devoid of any human traces.
            In his analysis of O’ Sullivan’s Black Cañon, Kelsey takes note of the human figure, a member of the expeditionary team, that breaks the composition of the pristine image of the Colorado river, noting how he is hunched in his boat writing in his notebook with his back turned away from the scene. Comparing this to a watercolor illustration by Samuel Seymour, Kelsey concludes that O’Sullivan wanted to impress upon the public the practical and productive process of surveying that should not be confused with touristic sightseeing.[5] Such consideration of creative nuances characterize archival ingenuity. In other writings, Kelsey would translate this as traces of a human body interacting with and embedded in the environment to explicitly demonstrate that landscape images are constructions made through a photographer’s embellishment, which he asserts to be necessary for understanding photography and, more broadly, humanity’s relationship with the environment. As Kelsey has illustrated in vignettes of Sullivan’s work, much of the ecological conundrum of photography has arisen through framing, which tricks us into channeling our attention to a subject in the photograph, away from the material circumstances of both subject and image.[6] Considering this, it seems as though ecology is concerned with the inclusion of its material circumstances to comment on photography’s larger place in our ecosystem, not for the sake of commenting on the content/objecthood of an individual photograph (although it too does that). For ecology, it is a question of the photograph’s self-reflexive acknowledgment of its material circumstances. He seeks to replicate how the composition of O’Sullivan’s photograph in the Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, with its intertwined materiality and indexicality, was able to draw attention to the ecological and social contexts surrounding the image.
            Towards the end of the chapter, Kelsey compares Clareton Watkins’s representation of the mines as part of a larger landscape and O’Sullivan’s depiction of the subterranean labor conditions that left traces of the material and social realities in the production of the photograph.[7]  Kelsey discusses the lengths to which photographers such as Ansel Adams (who collected O’Sullivan’s prints and donated them to MoMA) went to obscure the human presence in his images, creating landscapes whose value lay in their scenic quality and helping create a scopic regime which values preserving scenery over reducing invisible threats to the environment.[8] The reception of O’Sullivan’s images was also powerful in the depiction of the harmonious, almost symbiotic, parallels in the narratives of westward expansion and marks of time in the striations of the Cañon de Chelle in New Mexico. The chapter gives me a better sense of modernist reflexivity and of the labyrinth that art historians navigate in making sense of images and why it is critical that we don’t lose sight of the human-constructed nature in these images.
            Stemming from the above-mentioned insights from Archive Style, I think it is worth exploring in what ways photography has changed our view of nature and how our overwhelming dependence on photography has impacted our ability to experience nature and preserve it.  Kelsey points to a conundrum produced by photographs such as Sullivan’s: we relish the view of nature more than nature itself. Without the traces of brushwork, photographs conceal the process by which land is translated into landscape. In the same manner, O’ Sullivan’s staging of heroic images of the civil war and the sensational framing of alpines and canons and deserts, offer fantasies, often veiled as mere witnessing, of the incomprehensible grandeur of the country which through geological surveys had suddenly turned visible to a mass audience.


[1] Robin Kelsey, “Photography and the ecological imagination” in Braddock and Kusserow, eds. Nature’s Nation (Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2018) p. 396, emphasis in original.

[2] Ibid. p. 399 in his critique of Subhankar Banerjee.

[3] Robin Kelsey, Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850-1890 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), p. 76

[4] Ibid., p. 96

[5] Kelsey, op cit., 2007, p. 399

[6] Ibid, p. 29, 32; Kelsey, op cit., 2018, p. 396.

[7] Kelsey, op cit., 2007,p. 129.

[8] Ibid., p. 403