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Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850-1890

Robin Kelsey

Publication Year: 2007

This imaginative study of American visual culture reveals how the political predicaments of a few small bureaucracies once fostered pictures of an extraordinary style. U.S. geographical and geological surveys of the late nineteenth century produced photographs and drawings of topography, American Indians, geologic features, botanical specimens, and specialists at work in the field. Some of these pictures have long been celebrated for their anticipation of a modernist aesthetic, but Robin Kelsey, in this abundantly illustrated volume, traces their modernistic qualities to archival ingenuity. The technical and promotional needs of surveys, Kelsey argues, fostered the emergence of a taut, graphic pictorial style that imitated the informational clarity of diagrams and maps. As this book demonstrates, these pictures became sites of struggle as well as innovation when three brilliant survey artists and photographers subtly resisted the programs they were hired to serve. Discovering a politics of style behind the modernist look of survey pictures, Kelsey offers a fresh interpretation of canonical western expedition photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan and introduces two exceptional but largely forgotten sets of pictures: views of the U.S.-Mexico boundary from the 1850s by Arthur Schott and photographs of the Charleston earthquake of 1886 by C. C. Jones.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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p. v-v

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pp. vii-viii

Although the name of one author may grace the cover, overlapping communities produce a book. This book emerged out of a dissertation written under the guidance of Henri Zerner, and his magnanimous and wise care deserves much credit for whatever merit it possesses. Another member of my dissertation committee, Eric Rosenberg, has been a splendid interlocutor for the past decade, and to him ...


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pp. ix-xii

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pp. 1-18

This book is about pictures, style, and power outside the usual domain of art. Between 1850 and 1890, several U.S. geological or geographical surveys produced extraordinary sets of illustrations and photographs. Although museums and historians have long valued some of these pictures, their distinctive appearance has remained puzzling. Consider, for example, a photograph from 1873 by Timothy H.

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1. Arthur Schott: Marking the Mexican Boundary

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pp. 21-74

A desert scene exhibits peculiar qualities (fig. 3). It divides between a narrow foreground of painstakingly rendered elements and an expanse of schematic topography, thus eschewing the continuity of recession landscapists usually prize. It presents, in the manner of a natural hieroglyph, a compact arrangement of organic and animated signs. A leafy tip of a cactus stalk at left echoes a flag at center ...

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2. Timothy H. O’Sullivan: Surveys of the American West

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pp. 75-142

Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s survey photography has become a standard item in histories of photography and art (figs. 1, 2). As I noted in the Introduction, the literature on it has been largely split between writers who trace its appeal to the photographer’s modernist intuition, his “innate feeling for contour and the abstract forms of terrain and rock,” and those who deemphasize its modernistic qualities.1 This chapter relates the modernist look of these photographs to historical circumstances rather than personal intuition. In it I argue that O’Sullivan strategically ...

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3. C.C. Jones: The USGS Investigation of the Charleston Earthquake

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pp. 143-189

On September 3, 1886, a photographer named Charles Clifford Jones, known as C. C. Jones, arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, with a geologist named WJ (no periods) McGee. Both Jones and McGee were employees of the United States Geological Survey (USGS), established by Congress in 1879 in the Department of the Interior. The USGS had sent the two men to Charleston to investigate and record ...

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pp. 191-194

The preceding chapters have argued that the historical circumstances of survey production fostered new pictorial approaches. Makers of survey pictures had to satisfy vague and contradictory bureaucratic needs, adapt old habits to new tasks, and address viewers with disparate expectations, including some who doubted the pictures’ value and legitimacy as public records. The forces shaping new approaches came both from above, in the directives and filtering of supervisors, and from below, in ...


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pp. 195-244

Works Cited

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pp. 245-261


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pp. 263-273

Production Notes

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p. 274-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780520933286
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520249356

Page Count: 286
Publication Year: 2007