A Masterful Frame Job

osullivan-photoIn 1867, the American West was still very much wild.  It was into that new frontier that a young photographer named Timothy O’Sullivan ventured to provide a visual record of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, led by Clarence King.

As much a PR effort to encourage settlement of the West as it was an expedition, the survey yielded stunning landscape photos from the lens of O’Sullivan, who had been an apprentice to Mathew Brady.

Today the Library is home to more than 900 O’Sullivan photos, more than 90 of which are on display as part of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, “Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan.”  (A companion book accompanies the exhibition.)

In order to make these remarkable images more broadly available and known, we have uploaded a set of them to our Flickr photostream.  According to our curators in the Prints and Photographs Division, O’Sullivan’s task was slightly more arduous than those of today’s point-and-click shutterbugs:

Look closely, and you’ll see traces of a photographic art quite different from today’s pocket-size tools. A wagon for equipment, a large negative made of glass, a heavy wood camera, and O’Sullivan himself. The large-format prints were presented on mounts about 16 x 20 inches. The smaller stereograph pairs were mounted side by side to produce a three-dimensional effect.

If you haven’t visited our photostream lately, stop by and add your tags and comments.  Our thousands of images have received, at last count, about 23 million views.

One recent set of pictures commemorates the recent second anniversary of our Flickr pilot project, rounding up some of the best of the best comments we have received so far.

(Photo above: “Butte near Green River City, [Wyoming]” from Flickr.)


  1. Glenn Fleishman
    January 25, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I’m curious about how you scan this material to account for future improvements in displays? Right now, 24-bit is the norm, and color calibration on LCDs is all over the place. However, I’m sure we will eventually have deeper bit depth displays, some of which will be especially better suited to show black-and-white photographs with a full and more subtle expression of tonality.

  2. Phil Michel
    February 10, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    It’s true that we should expect technology for scanning and displaying images to improve in the future. To prepare for that future, the Library participates in the Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative, http://www.digitizationguidelines.gov/

    As part of that Initiative, the Still Image Working Group has been considering imaging quality and performance issues, common digitization guidelines, and technical specifications. Read more about it here:

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