In his essay Snyder makes clear his belief that a major distinction between the work of Watkins and O’Sullivan is that the former depicts a land of opportunity, whereas O’Sullivan shows a land that defies easy understanding. He says this is not necessarily their complete intentions for the majority of the period under discussion. Watkins was employed by the California State Geological Survey, although this was effectively to promote the mining and lumber interests in the region. In the photograph here he depicts the Sierra Nevada mine in Nevada.
The centre of the photograph is dominated by mine buildings on a flattened promontory, with other buildings at lower levels to the sides. The effect is to show how much the landscape here has been modified by human intervention. Snyder mentions how Watkins reduced the highlights and shadows to de-emphasize the intrusive nature of the buildings, to suggest a natural placing, that the man-made constructions belong here. It promotes the idea that white european settlers belong here, that this is a land waiting for the right people to exploit it. The previous native american inhabitants are not considered, and are not even really a consideration.
In contrast O’Sullivan would emphasize the highlights and shadows, and often include one or two people, as a way to emphasize how his depicted world did not so easily admit mankind.
The photograph shows a monumental outcrop with a few trees in the surrounding scrubland. The trees give some idea of the scale but he places one man in the lower centre of the picture to further demonstrate the massive size of the rock. It is not so much that western civilisation does not belong here, rather that it is a place that is beyond our immediate comprehension. Snyder says O’Sullivan’s use of the solitary figure in his photographs ‘underscores the unhappiness of the relation between human beings and the vast and barren landscape’. This image very much demonstrates that point.
Ian Jeffrey says that Clarence King, the expedition leader who employed O’Sullivan, was a believer in catastrophe theory. This argument runs counter to Darwin’s theory of evolution and that the world suffers periodic repeated ‘creations’. Since he would have had a large influence on what O’Sullivan depicted, this may also be an intention behind these photographs.
A point that came to my mind – but where I have not found any direct evidence – is how much O’Sullivan’s experiences photographing the civil war would influence his landscape work. Would his landscape photographs been less forbidding if he hadn’t been exposed to the horrors of the war ?