Collection of the Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.
Acquired from the above, 1970s
Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, N. M.:
Acquired from William L. Schaeffer/Photographs, Connecticut
In the years following the Civil War, the United States of America experienced a golden age of survey photography. Large-scale government-sponsored expeditions led by Clarence King, Ferdinand V. Hayden, John Wesley Powell, and George M. Wheeler, employed photographers to document the opportunities for and challenges of continental westward expansion.
In 1871, Timothy O’Sullivan joined Lieutenant Wheeler’s survey party exploring and documenting the geology of the United States west of the one-hundredth meridian for the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. William Bell joined the Wheeler Survey in 1872 when O’Sullivan temporarily transferred back to the King Survey to document the recently completed Central Pacific Railroad. In 1873 and 1874, O’Sullivan replaced Bell and rejoined Wheeler’s survey team, producing some of the best images of the American West ever made.
Recognized from the first as a monument of its kind, O’Sullivan’s photographs from the Wheeler Survey were praised by early historians and photographers alike. Beaumont Newhall and Ansel Adams championed O’Sullivan’s Wheeler Survey images and re-introduced them to the public in the groundbreaking exhibition The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present Day held in 1937 at The Museum of Modern Art. Of these photographs Adams said, ‘A few photographs are extraordinary – as fine as anything I have ever seen.’ Adams’s own copy of the Wheeler Survey album was in the exhibition, opened to O’Sullivan’s iconic image of Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle.
In his essay Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74 (The Art Bulletin, vol. 85, no. 4, 2003), to which this entry is indebted, Robin Kelsey describes in detail the complex history of the Wheeler Survey albums. Between 1874 and 1875, 50 albums of 50 photographs were produced. Each was comprised of 35 photographs by O’Sullivan and 15 photographs by Bell. Smaller albums with only 25 photographs were also produced in a larger edition and with different plate sequencing. The loose print of Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle offered here – with plate number ‘11’ in letterpress on the mount – was likely originally from an album of 25 photographs.
According to Kelsey, between 1875 and 1878, Wheeler sent bound albums of 25 or 50 photographs to nearly 30 government officials. Noteworthy recipients include President Rutherford B. Hayes, the Secretary of the Department of Interior, and The Library of Congress. Unlike other photographically illustrated volumes of the day, such as Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, the Wheeler Survey albums were not available by subscription.
Comparable bound albums with 50 plates have been located in the following institutions: The Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.; The Museum of Modern Art, gift of Ansel Adams; the Gilman Paper Company Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Marjorie and Leonard Vernon Collection at Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, New Haven, acquired in 1876 from Alphonso Taft, Attorney General and Secretary of War under President Ulysses S. Grant. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, acquired an album from Arnold Crane that was augmented (possibly later) with 10 plates from the 1874 survey. Disbound or incomplete albums are also in the collections of The New York Public Library and The Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth.
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