Ex. 2.1: ‘Territorial Photography’

1. I have read through Joel Snyder’s essay, ‘Territorial Photography’ to find and then summarise his key points:

  • Photography was seen as more precise, articulate, faithful and factual than any other art form.
  • To begin with, photography was mainly the domain of the middle-class, who aligned themselves with technological progress.
  •  Early photography was either taken for personal use or sold to an extremely small audience.
  • From the 1850’s onward a huge market opened up across America, with photography from unfamiliar places available country-wide.
  • The mid-1850’s were a turning point in the practice of photography. Before this time, photography was for the rich or trained artists only. Afterwards there was far more variety in the field, with the less-educated or well-off able to get a foothold. Because of this, photography became highly articulated rather than constricted.
  • The ideal photographic print looked mass-produced to reflect the increased importance of technology.
  • At the same time, two very different photographers were working:
  • Carleton Watkins set the standard for landscape photography in the American West. His work was picturesque and sublime in nature and was emulated by most photographers. He took photographs of a ‘harmony’ between nature and human development and industrialisation.
  • Timothy H. O’Sullivan was a photographer employed by academic surveyors between 1867 and 1874. He was tasked with ‘giving a sense of area’. This work was commissioned, not for artistic merit. His take on the landscape was the opposite of Watkins- he portrayed bleak, inhospitable land.


2. Contrasting Images

Carleton Watkins


For me, this image perfectly encapsulates Watkins work- inviting natural landscapes with the strength and scope of human development at the time.

The tones of the construction mix with both the land and trees to create the sense of ‘harmony’ that was so strong in his work. There is a sense of scale due to the angle and location but also intimacy- the eye is drawn to the nearby tree rather than the open space on the left.

As with most of his work, there’s a sublime quality to the scene- a sense of calm and the simple life, perhaps due to the lack of people, both residents and workers. It’s a quiet scene, without movement.


Timothy H. O’Sullivan


In contrast to Watkins, whose work could be described as ‘inviting’, O’Sullivan captures the uncompromising harshness of the American landscape. There’s little positive to be inferred within the scene, instead hard lines and strong contrast instill a sense of danger, of inhospitable land. There’s little in the way of nature.

Whereas Watkins found a serenity in the mixture of human life and nature, O’Sullivan eschews this entirely, favouring the utter absence of life, be it human or natural. This gives the shot a feeling of emptiness, even though the rocky forms take up the majority of the image. There’s nothingness in their expanse.



(1) Carleton Watkins, (1871), Magenta Flume Nevada Co. Cal., c. 1871. [ONLINE]. Available at:https://njwv.files.wordpress.com/2014/07/watkins_flume.jpg [Accessed 12 July 2016].

(2) Timothy H. O’Sullivan, (1873), Cañon de Chelle, Walls of the Grand Canon about 1200 feet in height[ONLINE]. Available at: https://artblart.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/osullivan_canon_de_chelle.jpg[Accessed 12 July 2016].

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