'Surrealistic and disturbing': Timothy O’Sullivan as Seen by Ansel Adams in the 1930s

Britt Salvesen


In 1937, Ansel Adams described the photographs taken some sixty years earlier by Timothy O’Sullivan in the American West as “surrealistic and disturbing.” He was writing to Beaumont Newhall, who was then curating a landmark exhibition celebrating the centenary of photography’s invention.

This paper examines the 1930s as a formative moment in the Modernist history of photography. At this time, Adams and Newhall—influenced also by Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Weston—developed a history for their young medium that emphasized certain practices and approaches. The Western Survey photographs of the 1870s became cornerstones in this history, for they seemed to exemplify a photographic sensibility unencumbered by artistic aspiration.

A tension develops here between the attempt to define and restrict the medium, and the need to explain the strange qualities of these early photographs, leading to the invocation of surrealism. By examining surrealism’s deployment in this context, the paper provides a different angle from which to view the West as subject and surrealism as style in the history of photography.

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