The harsh light, sweeping panoramas, and sculpted pueblos of the American Southwest make it an ideal subject for photographers. For that reason, Americans have spent the last half century surrounded by images of red canyons, silhouetted cacti, highways stretching toward distant horizons, and cowboys astride tired steeds. These postcard icons have become part of a common visual shorthand used to discuss the idea of frontier, but in the early twentieth century such photographs were evidence of the exotic. The shooters who would define the region in the popular imagination had yet to arrive.
They came for many reasons. Photographers arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in search of unspoilt wilderness, native tribes, clean light, and respite from increasingly crowded and dirty cities. But whatever the reasons were for their coming, the reason they all returned was the same: scale. Monument Valley, the Sonoran Desert, and even the ancient towns around Taos provided photographers with a chance to capture subjects in the context of deep time. For the initial group of artistically minded photographers who journeyed from New York to meet Georgia O'Keeffe, the wife of their famed gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, the place served as a laboratory for experimentation. For the artists that followed, it came to embody the size and possibility of America, serving as a stage for more human dramas.
The Southwest's significance in shaping photography as an artform is matched only by photography's significance in defining the region's identity. Here are the photographers who came to the desert with their cameras and left with a legacy.
Timothy O'Sullivan learned his trade in some of the ugliest places ever captured on film. An employee of famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, O'Sullivan shot at Gettysburg and Appomattox, capturing images of mass death and destruction. When the war ended, he was understandably eager to get away from the bloodied East. He signed on to the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, an expedition led by prominent surveyor Clarence King and tasked with mapping and photographing areas of the Southwest that might appeal to settlers and be suitable for new rail lines.
O'Sullivan brought an old horse-drawn ambulance to use as a darkroom and an artistry to the practical endeavor, carefully framing images of rock spires, waterfalls, and deserts. Though his tin types didn't exactly make Colorado and Utah seem particularly welcoming, they did neatly capture the size of the landscape, the massive scale of its geologic features, and the daily lives of the local Native American tribes. Pleased with the results, the Geological Survey asked O'Sullivan to stay on for a canal-planning expedition to Panama and a tour of the areas west of the 100th parallel, including what would become Arizona and New Mexico.
O'Sullivan's images of the Southwest were among the first seen by the masses back East. O'Sullivan took pains to respectfully pose Hopi tribesmen and document pueblos and canyons alike. The images show an almost empty landscape and the faces of those tough enough to weather its extremes. Unsurprisingly, they were a hit with government types and potential settlers alike, making O'Sullivan famous for the rest of his brief life, which ended on Staten Island in 1882.
South Side of Inscription Rock, N.M.
Credit: Library of Congress