Exercise 2.1: “Territorial Photography”

For this exercise we initially have to read and summarise the key points of Synder’s essay “Territorial Photography”

The key points are:

          The initial response to photography with its invention was a kind of comparison based on where it stands as opposed to other picture making means. One main difference was that the photography was more “mechanical” compared to the handmade traditional arts. Photographs though to be accurate representations of the objects or scenes. For this reason it is ironic that Landscape Photography of the late 19th century has been addressed in aesthetic terms which though not to be applicable to photographs given to their mechanical nature.

          In this essay the author discussed two different American western Landscape practises of the 1860s and 1870s. The first generations of Landscape photographers (1840s-1850s) were influences by the habitual conventions of the genre (lithography, etching, painting etc). These initial landscape photos were either for personal use or were aiming to a small audience. By the 1870s this changed, the photographs become a commercial product and that affect the motives of the photographic production.

          The first generation of photographers came from privileged societies. They were familiar with the tropes of the landscape photography and they wanted to express themselves through photography. However, as photography became more popular and less educated people became photographers the ideal photograph was a good quality machine print. While a painting was representing the ideal, the imaginary, photograph was representing the real. By the 1860 photography distanced itself from fine arts and was more useful for purposes of documentation.  The aesthetics were not so important but the precision. This new generation of photographers was aware of the rules of the landscape in other means, but felt free not to follow them. They just wanted to depict the reality. By the early 1860s there was the question how to make a beautiful image which though was a product of the of scientific laws and the photographic art.

          Carleton Watkins produced high quality negatives of Yosemite Park, the Pacific Coast, Utah and Nevada. These images were detailed representations of what a viewer would have seen if he had visited these places. There was nothing idealised or artistic in this images, it was a likeness of the nature itself. He depicted landscapes both as places somebody wanted to visit and also as places for potential investment. However, his technical skills and the tonalities he was using, were intended to pleasure the viewer in a way the real landscape could not.

          Timothy O’ Sullivan was one of the best war photographers of 1860s. From 1967 to 1874 he followed the geologist C. King who was interested in mapping and documenting the interior of the country. His photos were just scientific depictions of the places. He was not interested like Watkins to show how these places can be habituated by the people who would look them in the photos. His photos were giving a feeling of isolation, places which will not be so easy for people to live.

Then we have to find two photographs from the photographers mentioned in the article but not those mentioned in the essay and evaluated them. As the main photographers discussed in the essay were Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’ Sullivan I wanted to find one photo of each of them. Initially, as the images in the essay are not clear I wanted to explore their work. I found the following links (all accessed on 09-04-2016).

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/carleton-watkins

[2] http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/watkinsbro.htm

[3] https://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/watkins.html

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/dec/30/carleton-watkins-photographs-saved-yosemite

[5] http://www.andrewsmithgallery.com/exhibitions/carletonwatkins/mammoth_plates/


[7] http://www.iphf.org/hall-of-fame/timothy-osullivan/

[8] http://petapixel.com/2013/09/02/amazing-19th-century-photographs-american-west-timothy-osullivan/

It is not so easy to choose on the photos by Watkins. I finally go with a photo from Yosemite, the series which make him famous.



To evaluate his work I think we have to consider when this was taken and what effect that would have to the viewer. It was the first time visitors were able to see a real representation of the place they want to visit, than read about it or see drawings [4]. In order to achieve such images he ordered [2] the development of a camera with really big negative plates 18 x 22 inches [3], the resolution of the resulting images was comparable to contemporary digital cameras [3]. The reflections in the image of the Yosemite and the composition are impressive. We can see the details of the trees and the mountain. In addition the kind of sepia colour reminds us that is a photo and not real view. It is though so realistic, like we are sitting in a chair and enjoying the view. It invite us to want visit this place and have a peaceful and relaxing walk on it.

In the petapixel article [8] there is a collection of some really nice images taken by Timothy O’ Sullivan. Again it is not so easy to choose one photo.

I choose “The junction of the Green and Yampah Canyons in Utah. Taken in 1872”


It is an interesting image, which looks that is technically correct. It is an image which we can see more in Geography book showing unexplored areas, than in a series of images capturing the beauty of places. However, there is some beauty. There is a beauty of the nature in areas that the humans have not lived yet or possibly would never live. It is a place not inviting us to visit it, however views of which we might enjoy view taken by an helicopter or in our days with a drone. I think, to connect with the previous part of the course, there is the element of sublime. If we look Timothy O’ Sullivan’s photos in a gallery without knowing anything for him or his work, we will have a strange feeling, the photos will invite us to stay and look at them for longer, try to explore them. To me there is also a feeling of feeling so small in the glory or the sublime of the nature.

I want also to comment on something else. In this article it is mentioned that Timothy O’ Sullivan is more famous for his photo http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/58082/timothy-h-o’sullivan-print-by-alexander-gardner-a-harvest-of-death-american-negative-july-4-1863-print-1866/

Harvest of death, It is a photo worth looking at. It was taken in a time where photographers of war were freer to take images, as opposed to the current war photojournalists who are under the control of army and governments. I thought initially that this comment is not so related to what we want to discuss in this exercise. However, in a second thought, I wander if his experience from the war zones affected the way he took his later photos. Maybe from the pain he has seen in the war zones, made him take more bleak landscapes as described in the essay by Snyder.  


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