Screaming Into The Abyss

As an assignment for my art history class, I wrote some comments about this photograph hanging at the MIA.

Black Canyon, Colorado River, Looking Above from Mirror Bar by Timothy O’SullivanAt first glance the familiar, approximately 8 x 10, size of this photograph is quite disarming. Aside from the sepia coloring of the black and white image, there is little to indicate that this is not a modern photograph of the American west. However, upon closer inspection, the smooth, glass-like, almost foggy quality of the water gives away the length of time necessary to expose a negative in 1871. While it is likely that O’Sullivan used a very large aperture during this long exposure, the depth of field reaches from the extremely close foreground nearly to infinity, enhancing the modern appearance of the image.

The mountainous walls of the canyon are impressively rendered as the high angle of sunlight on the stone brings out the ruggedness of the landscape. Even though the image is a classic example of landscape photography, that high angle of light brings out a definition of shape that gives the image the appearance of an intentionally lit portrait. The impression is great enough that the eye searches the walls of rocks for faces, like scanning a crowd.

The inclusion of the boat and figure near the center of the photograph gives the image a portrait-like quality as well. If the viewer didn’t already know that the picture is part of a documentary project commissioned by the war department, he could easily believe it to be a travel photograph taken to commemorate a family expedition. The inclusion of the bow of the photographer’s own boat and footprints reinforce the impression that this is not staged, but a recording of an event as it takes place.

The searching for faces also leads the viewer to an object that continually draws my attention. In the lower-left corner is a shape, like a lower-case “e” made by something unidentifiable. Possibly, this is something that a veteran wilderness explorer would recognize instantly. Possibly, it is an artifact of this particular technician’s albumen printing process. It leaves a question in the viewer’s mind about the reasoning or lack thereof behind including this shape in the final print.

Originally taken as documentation of The United States’ western expansion in the late 1800s, the photograph may have been intended to show the rough, untamed nature of the landscape that Americans had yet to conquer. In this regard, it is successful as the figure and boat give a sense of the sheer volume of stone above the river and indicates that the location would be impossible to access by any other means. The image is successful in other ways as well. The landscape was not only untamed wilderness, but a majestic scene that would be visited by millions of people in the century to come.

At the same time, the image seems devoid of opinion of its purpose. Is it intended to show the nation that there are lands out west available for the taking? That it was the manifest destiny of the nation to expand into these lands? Or is it intended to warn Americans of what dangers lay in the years and lands ahead? Without the context of caption and American history, the viewer would see this as a dynamic, technically-well-executed landscape photograph. We have seen so many thousands of photographs similar to this one that we no longer think immediately of the relationship of man to nature. We no longer consider the power inherent in ownership of this land or the power the land might bestow upon us.

The wide angle of the image, including nearly the feet of the photographer and reaching into the sky above the far bluff, still can’t include the peaks of the near cliff faces. The stone itself forms the edge of the image through its interaction with the sides and top of the print and the path of the river defines the bottom boundary of the photograph. That simple fact gives the viewer a feeling of smallness, even when the valley is represented on such a small scale.

While the primary subjects of the image, the stone walls of the canyon and the figure standing near the center are motionless by necessity of the technology of the era, the composition and framing produced many diagonal lines, many of which appear to converge off the left edge of the frame, giving the impression of motion and a feeling of more to be seen farther down the river bend. Invoking a feeling of peace in an environment of danger, the wide beach and the flowing water contrast with the apparent heat of the desert canyon, inviting the viewer, or perhaps the photographer, to stop and rest for a while.

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