Historical Photographs of the American West on Display at BYU

Contributed By By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer

  • 6 February 2014

Cottonwood Lake, Wasatch Mountains, Utah, 1869.  Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Article Highlights

  • The Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs exhibit is on display at the BYU Museum of Art through May 26.
  • The photos in the exhibit were taken on a tour meant to gather scientific information about the largely undiscovered and somewhat mysterious American territory west of the Missouri River.

Thousands of visitors are expected to walk the galleries of BYU’s Museum of Art in the coming months to enjoy the historic Christ-themed exhibition Sacred Gifts.

Curators at the museum hope patrons reserve a few extra minutes during their visit to enjoy a recently unveiled collection of 19th-century photographs of the American West.

Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs offers dozens of images captured by a man many consider to be among the most influential photographers of the 19th century. Timothy O’Sullivan used his emerging medium to photograph an American West that, according to curators, “struck an ideal balance between fact and interpretation, forever changing the way we think of landscape photography.”

The exhibit, which will be on display through May 26, includes diverse images of mining operations, barren landscapes, and the region’s unique geological formations. “What continually makes O’Sullivan’s images compelling to audiences today is his ability to walk the line between documentary reality and poetic imagination,” said the museum’s photography curator, Diana Turnbow. “He managed to infuse his photographs of the West with his own experience.”

The King Survey was a long-term undertaking to gather scientific information about the largely undiscovered and somewhat mysterious American territory west of the Missouri River.

Mormon history buffs will be drawn to O’Sullivan’s photographs of Utah’s Wasatch Range during a pivotal moment in the years just before and just after the building of the transcontinental railroad. One highlight is an image of the survey leader sitting on the floor of the desolate Salt Lake Valley.

Captain Buck and Shoshone Indians, East Humboldt Mountains, Nevada, 1868. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The photographer, who mastered his trade as a Civil War photographer, “produced a range of images in the West, from purely factual to enigmatically poetic,” said Sister Turnbow.

Additional information on the exhibition can be found online at moa.byu.edu/timothy-osullivan.

Camp at Shoshone Falls, Idaho, 1868. Image courtesy of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.