Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art Presents Timothy O’Sullivan Photography Exhibition

The King Survey of the Great Basin, from 1867 to 1872, was the model for the other “great surveys” of the 19th-century American West. Rare and iconic works by Timothy H. O’Sullivan, the King Survey’s official photographer, is featured in an exhibition at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art on view through Sept. 2. Keith F. Davis and Jane L. Aspinwall, respectively senior and assistant curators of photography at the Nelson-Atkins, organized Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs.


Timothy H. O’Sullivan, American (1840-1882). Sand Dunes, Carson Desert, Nevada, 1867. Albumen print. Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2005.27.191.

“There is good reason that O’Sullivan remains so influential after all these years,” said Davis. “Visually speaking, he was the world’s greatest poker player. He always kept his cards close to his vest. His images are at once boldly straightforward and deeply mysterious, a perfect combination of intuition and calculation. His genius lies, in part, in making such originality appear so effortless.”

There are 60 photographs in the exhibition. Nine were borrowed from the American Geographical Society in Milwaukee, WIS; and the remainder are from the holdings of the Nelson-Atkins. Accompanying the exhibition is a major book, co-authored by Davis and Aspinwall, with contributions by three esteemed scholars: John P. Herron, Francois Brunet, and Mark Klett.

“O’Sullivan continues to influence generations of photographers because of his purely individual melding of fact and point of view,” said Aspinwall. “He was a complicated character, a hearty adventurer, a photographic explorer and innovator, with a bit of the daredevil thrown in the mix.”
The book emphasizes the context of O’Sullivan’s photographs: his best known images in relation to the complete body of his survey work, the function of the photographs within the survey enterprise, and the scientific and cultural importance of the survey itself. In creating the book, Davis and Aspinwall became engaged in their own kind of “survey,” working from opposite ends of the subject back toward a common center.
“Jane focused on the evidence of the photographs themselves, tracking down every view and putting them into chronological order,” said Davis. “I began with an overview of the history of western exploration and then attempted to describe the King Survey and O’Sullivan’s career in detail. The meeting point, the crux of the whole project, was O’Sullivan’s remarkable photographs.”

Davis became fascinated with O’Sullivan’s work 40 years ago, and his respect for the richness and longevity of his work has increased over the years.

“Someone once said that writing a biography usually entails a process of ‘falling out of love’ with one’s subject,” said Davis. “That’s absolutely not true in this case. This exhibition and book have resulted in a newer and deeper admiration for a truly one-of-a-kind photographic achievement. That’s O’Sullivan’s gift to us–and we want to share it.”

Timothy H. O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs gives visitors a new appreciation of the visual history of the 19th-century American West, while presenting some of the museum’s rarest treasures for public view.

Admission to the Museum is free to everyone. For Museum information, phone 816.751.1ART (1278) or visit nelson-atkins.org.

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