Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 2007
Robin Kelsey Archive Style: Photographs and Illustrations for U.S. Surveys, 1850–1890 Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. 286 pp.; 89 b/w ills. Cloth $52.00 (9780520249356)
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Archive Style is an excellent book. Focusing on three U.S. survey artists—one well-known, two others obscure—Robin Kelsey shows that American expeditionary art of the nineteenth century is more pictorially innovative and more rigorous than many readers might have thought. “The representation of straightforwardness has never been straightforward,” he writes (5); and Archive Style, like the work of the artists it studies, like many strong books that lucidly examine the mysterious subtleties and intricacies of their topics, is a labyrinth laid in a straight line.

Timothy O’Sullivan is Kelsey’s better-known subject, the focus of the second of the book’s three long chapters. Traveling in the West with the King and Wheeler surveys every year but one between 1867 and 1874, O’Sullivan made photographs such as Pyramid and Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada and Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, N. M. These images have previously been seen, if at all, as relatively generic if singularly heroic examples of western photography. The few who have attempted an account of the way the photographs look—Ansel Adams, who saw Cañon de Chelle as modernist before its time; Rosalind Krauss, who dismissed the idea that the photographs had anything so exalted as a style—missed the mark, writes Kelsey. Instead O’Sullivan’s photographs display an extraordinary pictorial intelligence, as he carefully thought about how to accommodate the requirements of the survey while expressing, at times, his disavowal of these very aims.

In Cañon de Chelle, for example, the world is rendered flat and schematic not because O’Sullivan was a modernist before his time but because he understood that his images must condense—must crystallize—the welter of information before the camera (what James Elkins calls the “on-and-on of the world” that photography always threatens to make overwhelmingly visible) into a tight, planar, readable image. The reduction of the world to a mysterious legibility was O’Sullivan’s gift. O’Sullivan knew also that his work must avoid conventional picturesque formulas and that the figures appearing within his photographs must avoid looking like sightseers. When Congressmen threatened to cut off funding for the surveys, lamenting the apparent uselessness of their scientific findings and the touristic irrelevance of their pictorial records, O’Sullivan aimed to deliver information that would be clear, useful, and powerfully direct. Even the Tufa Domes, which to modern eyes may seem like a fatalistically desolate black-and-white adumbration of Richard Misrach’s Nevada—a prediction of his bombing ranges and dead ranch animals—is (Kelsey persuasively argues) a stunningly conceived display of tight, bold, government-inspired legibility: the rocks abstracted from their surroundings, made to stand forth with the immediacy of a stereoscopic image.

O’Sullivan’s strength lay also, Kelsey notes, in the subtle countertensions of his survey work. An Irishman working amid the aristocratic class of surveyors, he identified with the Irish miners of Virginia City, Nevada, and visualized the hard and squalid conditions of their labor, even as those very conditions would be excised (the photographs not included) in the official reports of the mining district. He portrayed the Apaches as a kind of threatening inscrutability—as an unaccountable language akin, Kelsey writes, to the geological gibberish of the fracture-seamed boulder on which one of these warriors sits. Although this conception matched the goals of the survey—displaying the peoples of the Southwest as themselves a foreign territory requiring vigilance and mapping—these ethnographic photographs introduce fissures running across the smooth planarities of clear information. Even O’Sullivan’s way of humorously figuring his own presence into his photographs—in his shadow, in a too-artfully placed bottle—show a sensibility at odds with, not reducible to, the agenda he yet so beautifully devised a pictorial means of representing.

Kelsey’s reading of O’Sullivan is revelatory, yet I like the other two chapters even more. The first is on Arthur Schott, who in about 1856 produced thirty-two engravings charting the boundary between the United States and Mexico, the result of his firsthand observations on the border survey of Major William H. Emory. These cactus-studded works feature a striking discontinuity of foreground and background—prickly vegetation and flapping flags near to the viewer, then a sudden zoom into diaphanous spaces in the distance. Meant to capture the exact location of boundary markers between the California coast and El Paso, these discontinuous works reveal Schott at odds with the survey requirements that, like O’Sullivan, he served so well.

A Prussian émigré, embittered by the failure of the 1848 revolution and disdainful of the way his great learning and draughtsmanly precision were little valued by the bureaucratic requirements of his government employers, Schott figured himself in those cactus-filled foregrounds, evincing the desert border as a barricade-like region of mystical exile, an almost Christian place suffused with a romantic heart’s blood of affect that yet would have been invisible, at least to me, were it not for Kelsey’s superb analysis. Even as he brings Schott’s personal convictions to the fore, Kelsey shows also that the very terms of Schott’s personal art neatly fit Emory’s requirements, establishing “a distinctive, intimate tenor” (65), a tone of careful veracity, likely to persuade viewers of the hard-won reliability of the views and the borders they document.

The third chapter, on the obscure United States Geologic Survey photographer C. C. Jones, is equally impressive. Leading us through the photographs Jones made of an 1886 earthquake that devastated Charleston, South Carolina, Kelsey begins subtly. He notes that unlike more sensational journalistic photographers of the damage, Jones focuses on only slight aberrations: cracks in the foundations of houses otherwise four-square and solid; the slight tilts of foundations and porticos. Kelsey shows that this otherwise inexplicable subtlety owes to geologic survey method: one must establish a normative base line—a consistent geometric register (of fence, railway line, solid cliff, straight street, or unaffected building, for example)—against which to measure a disruption.

Beyond that, Kelsey shows that Jones’s photographs inevitably refer to the lingering devastation of the Civil War and the violent confrontations between capital and labor in 1886. The earthquake and Haymarket dynamite were both “hidden forces of destruction” (171), and the political tumult of that year could make Jones’s seemingly innocuous photograph of railway workers beside a wrecked locomotive a disturbingly direct sign of threat: American spatio-temporal corporate rationality subject to an unpredictable swerve, deviation, and violence. Likewise, a photograph of African Americans temporarily camping in Charleston’s Washington Square after the earthquake shows both a reassuring panoptic command (it was taken from an upper window of city hall) and the suddenly central reemergence of an all-but-enslaved race at the very heart of the city’s, and America’s, fictions of placid park-like contentment.

Like Schott and O’Sullivan, Jones emerges as a man whose point of view inflects his images. The research Kelsey does on Jones—on the “labor republicanism” of the Washington, DC-area Sycamore Island Club to which he belonged; and on the class and race politics of the YMCA where his colleague WJ McGee gave a slide lecture about the earthquake—vividly intensifies our sense of the social world Jones’s photographs ineluctably address. Instead of being “consign[ed] to muteness” (188), his images say a great deal.

These three chapters make up a book of startlingly consistent quality. Archive Style largely avoids the academic debates about what comes first—“close reading,” so called, or a historical-contextual approach—by simply, deftly, combining the two at every point, as though it should be a matter of course (which it should be) that a persuasive account of art must always be such a combination. It is one thing for me to say such a thing, however, and another for Kelsey to have enacted it. Reading this book, I feel in the presence of a unique force of argumentation—imaginative speculation and scientific rigor of analysis melded into mutually constitutive strengths, thanks to Kelsey’s gifts and training. I do not know that there is another book in my field that mixes the two so well.

I find myself thinking of the striations of O’Sullivan’s Cañon de Chelle as the leitmotif of Kelsey’s method. This photograph is an apt image for the cover of Archive Style. Those striations mark not only O’Sullivan’s talents of measuring but Kelsey’s as well—his own ability to treat disparate incomprehensible data in a scientific and clarifying way; his own ability, within this precision, to establish (as a kind of grace note, or swerve of discord) a personalized and more idiosyncratic backbeat or counterbeat of disruption and small tell-tale cracks, each registering as a little explosion, an ideologically meaningful punctum, all the more intense for appearing within the ordered lucidity.

I see the scholarship of Peter Galison and Yve-Alain Bois in this approach (not to take anything away from Kelsey’s personal archive style, which is recognizably his own). I see a predilection for treating these works foremost as articulations of a relentless order in which, by degrees, a chaos can seep and disruptively flow. Though my own interests in art tend to run slightly counter to this—though I identify with Kenneth Haltman in his readings of “reverie” in the work of earlier survey artists such as Samuel Seymour, and with one of my own graduate students who has become fascinated with the role of empty (one might say unscientific) space in O’Sullivan’s Civil War battlefield photographs; and though in my own business of inscription I am more inclined to the chiseled letters on the rock, marks of a personal and rather forlorn conquest, than to the measurements of the yardstick—I am much edified and deeply impressed by Archive Style, which teaches me how to see anew.

Alexander Nemerov
Professor, Department of the History of Art, Yale University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.