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Historic photographs capture emerging American West

BYU exhibit features glimpse of American West

PROVO, UTAH

Thousands of visitors are expected to walk the galleries of BYU’s Museum of Art in the coming months to enjoy the historic, Christ-themed exhibition “Sacred Gifts.”

Curators at the museum hope patrons reserve a few extra minutes during their visit to enjoy a recently unveiled, pivotal collection of 19th century photographs of the American West.

Camp at Shoshone Falls, Idaho, 1868
Camp at Shoshone Falls, Idaho, 1868 Photo: Photo courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

“Timothy O’Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs” offers dozens of images captured by a man many consider to be among the most influential photographers of the 19th century. Timothy O’Sullivan used his emerging medium to photograph an American West that, according to curators, “struck an ideal balance between fact and interpretation, forever changing the way we think of landscape photography.”

The exhibit, which will be on display through May 26, includes diverse images of mining operations, barren landscapes and the region’s unique geological formations. “What continually makes O’Sullivan’s images compelling to audiences today is his ability to walk the line between documentary reality and poetic imagination,” said the museum’s photography curator, Diana Turnbow. “He managed to infuse his photographs of the West with his own experience.”

The King Survey was a long-term undertaking to gather scientific information about the largely undiscovered and somewhat mysterious American territory west of the Missouri River.

Cottonwood Lake, Wasatch Mountains, Utah, 1869.
Cottonwood Lake, Wasatch Mountains, Utah, 1869. Photo: Photo courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Mormon history buffs will be drawn to O’Sullivan’s photographs of Utah’s Wasatch Range during a pivotal moment in the years just before and just after the building of the transcontinental railroad. One highlight is an image of the survey leader sitting on the floor of the desolate Salt Lake Valley.

The photographer, who mastered his trade as a Civil War photographer, “produced a range of images in the West, from purely factual to enigmatically poetic,” said Sister Turnbow.

Captain Buck and Shoshone Indians, East Humboldt Mountains, Nevada, 1868
Captain Buck and Shoshone Indians, East Humboldt Mountains, Nevada, 1868 Photo: Photo courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Additional information on the exhibition can be found online at moa.byu.edu/timothy-osullivan.

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