New Digital Collection from the American Geographical Society Library: Western Photograph Collection

photo of shoshone falls

Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho Territory, 1868.

An extensive selection from the American Geographical Society Library’s collection of western images by Timothy H. O’Sullivan–one of the most important landscape photographers of the 19th century–has now been made available online to a worldwide audience.

The Western Photograph Collection presents 250 images by O’Sullivan (1840-1882), taken during the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel (1867-1872), the Surveys West of the 100th Meridian Expedition (1874), and other explorations of the early western territories of the United States.

In O’Sullivan’s role as official photographer to the surveys, he made images that satisfied the need for objective documentation but that also, according to the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, “often functioned as . . . a personal evocation of the fantastic and beautiful qualities of the western landscape.”

Susan E. Williams, an O’Sullivan scholar, says that AGSL’s holdings of his photographs are of “great importance and significance . . . containing images not seen in other collections.”

The photographs have attracted researchers and scholars from around the world, including Williams, who is preparing a new book on O’Sullivan, as well as from the UWM community.

Joseph Mougel, associate professor of photography and imaging in the UWM Peck School of the Arts, brings his photography students to the library to view O’Sullivan’s photographs first-hand. He says that although one can see reproductions in books–and now online–viewing the actual prints reveals their scale, the properties of the paper, and the slowly changing surface sheen, among other physical attributes.

Mougel has also used the O’Sullivan images as reference points in his photography project “From Silver Crystals to Landscape Pixels,” which “utilizes a 19th century positive photographic process to create new landscape imagery based on historical photographs of the American west and reinterpreted via Google Earth.”

The library’s O’Sullivan photographs have been loaned to the Milwaukee Art Museum for several exhibitions, including their current exhibit, “An-My Lê: On Contested Terrain.”

AGSL Curator Marcy Bidney is excited about offering global digital access to the collection, and believes the online photographs will draw more visitors to Milwaukee to examine the rare and historic artifacts.