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Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho, View Across the Top of the Falls, 1874

The photographer Timothy O’Sullivan arose from obscurity, and he died there. Best known for documenting the landscape of the Western United States in the 1860s and 1870s, he was born in Ireland, emigrated to the U.S. when he was 2, and settled, at some point, on Staten Island. By his late teens, he moved into the orbit of two of the more famous names of 19th-century American photography, helping Alexander Gardner open a Washington, D.C., studio for Matthew Brady in the late 1850s.

A few years later, O’Sullivan gained notice for his images of the Civil War, and then drew on the rigors of documenting armed conflict—technical, logistical, and mental—over seven years of traveling through the Western U.S. on two geological surveys, one led by the geologist
Clarence King and the other by Lt. George M. Wheeler.

Historian Beaumont Newhall, in his landmark text The History of Photography, writes that O’Sullivan “photographed hundreds of feet underground in the Comstock Lode mines by magnesium flare–dangerous and unpredictable anywhere, almost suicidal in mines where inflammable gas might be lurking.” Newhall concludes that, in an age when most of his top-rank photographic peers went west in search of stunning vistas and hardscrabble scenes, O’Sullivan was “the most experienced expeditionary photographer in the country.”

But O’Sullivan died of tuberculosis in 1882, at just 42, and for decades after his death, his work was largely overlooked. It took until the 1970s for his images to gain their full due. They are both widely celebrated and deeply influential to a new generation of landscape photographers.

The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition “Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan” includes roughly 120 images by the photographer and is billed as “the first major exhibition” devoted to O’Sullivan in three decades.

The exhibit is ably assembled and features a notable cross-section of O’Sullivan’s Western documentary work. But it also suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. Over the years, O’Sullivan’s Western images have become too familiar to make possible a truly groundbreaking retrospective. On the other hand, the exhibition squanders an opportunity to capitalize on a pair of intriguing angles it raises.

To be sure, the mere display of O’Sullivan’s Western photographs offers significant rewards, even of the images that are well-known. (Or at least seem well-known; one would be forgiven for failing to immediately distinguish the work of O’Sullivan from his Western-photography contemporaries, such as William Henry Jackson, Alexander Gardner, and Carleton Watkins).

O’Sullivan’s brown-toned photographs—-identically and tastefully mounted within complementary pale yellow borders—-are best appreciated with a nose right up to the glass. The prints, made from large, “wet-plate” glass negatives, depict granular, intensely detailed surfaces of rocks, as well as gloriously (but due to their long exposure times, misleadingly) placid depictions of surging water.

Pyramid Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 1867

As impressive as the exhibition’s 256-page catalog is, its photomechanical reproduction of works like Brown’s Park, Colorado, 1872 or Green River Canon, Colorado, 1872 is simply no substitute for eyeing the original prints’ extraordinary degree of detail.

In Yampah Canon, Colorado, 1872, the camera reveals a marvelously sun-drenched canyon dotted with tiny brush plants that look like flecks of chocolate shaken over a mocha-frosted cake. And in one of several images titled Buttes Near Green River City, Wyoming, 1872, the only element more striking than the finely rendered horizontal striations is how the bulky geological formations seem to be viewed from an aircraft that couldn’t possibly have been invented yet. (Oddly, the presentation of O’Sullivan’s three-dimensional stereograph images are unimpressive; they are much less bracing than the examples displayed earlier this year at the National Portrait Gallery’s “Faces of the Frontier: Photographic Portraits from the American West, 1845–1924.”)

Though the occasional O’Sullivan image veers toward protomodern abstraction, the photographer usually plays it straight, often inserting men, wagon trains, or other objects into the frame, presumably to help the viewers back east measure the scale of what they’re seeing.

A more interesting aspect of O’Sullivan’s work, noted somewhat accidentally in the exhibition’s commentary, is that his wet-plate photographic process, while complicated and unwieldy for in-the-field use, enabled photographers to judge a negative immediately after exposing it. If they were dissatisfied and acted quickly enough, the plate could be stripped, recoated, and prepared for a new exposure.

O’Sullivan’s images seem effortless, but they’re actually carefully crafted. As the catalog notes, “many images of what appear to be the most remote or isolated locations were deliberate inventions.” It cites one rock formation he photographed that seems out-of-the-way yet was in fact visible to any of the 165,000 emigrants who passed near it on the Humboldt Trail to California during the 1840s and 1850s.

Such realities underscore that O’Sullivan’s sojourn through the West did not take him to an entirely unexplored land. O’Sullivan’s travels came at the delicate moment between early exploration and full settlement. In some cases, a casual pivot of the camera away from an untrammeled mountain or butte would have brought a smoke-belching mill or a bustling mine entrance into the frame.

Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho, 1868

Two promising themes also remain slightly out of frame.

One is the contrast between O’Sullivan’s majestic geologic landscapes and his emotionally charged Civil War images. His Civil War experience is glossed over in just one display case, a case that features what may be the most jaw-dropping image in the entire exhibit: A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Where to begin in describing it? Its brutally honest depiction of death in a series of deceased soldiers splayed on the battlefield? The eerie echoes of the bodies’ shapes as they lie across the frame? The ghostly forms of survivors in the distance? It is a tantalizing photograph that begs for a whole new avenue of inquiry into O’Sullivan’s work. It is a psychological puzzle: How do we connect the man who created such a visceral, emotionally resonant image to the one who went on to photograph inanimate geological formations? The exhibit provides no answers.

The other missed opportunity would have been a richer exploration of the linkage between O’Sullivan and his latter-day disciples.

The exhibit makes a feint in that direction by including a small number of images (in most cases, a paltry one each) from six more recent landscape photographers working in the West. Many artists have followed O’Sullivan’s footsteps (literally and figuratively) in the past few decades, and on this score, the curators deserve some credit for choosing some relatively unfamiliar figures to pair with O’Sullivan.

But with two exceptions—specifically, a wonderfully abstract image of rock and water in Idaho by Thomas Joshua Cooper and a series of images by Mark Ruwedel documenting the lasting but not-very-obvious impact of obsolete railroad cuts—the chosen images add little. The geologic images of Edward Ranney and Terry Toedtemeier don’t move appreciably beyond what O’Sullivan produced (and Ranney’s was inexplicably taken in Peru). Eric Paddock’s image of a landscape in Colorado—the only color photograph in the show—quietly underwhelms. Meanwhile, Martin Stupich’s 1988 image of the Theodore Roosevelt Dam on Arizona’s Salt River would look more at home in an exhibition of 1930s monumentalism.

A wiser and more extensive selection of images by these artists, or by other contemporary landscapists, would have injected some variety into an exhibition of O’Sullivan’s work. But perhaps the failure to find worthy companion works is a backhanded compliment to O’Sullivan: After almost a century-and-a-half, his photography continues to set the bar high.