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HomeContentsThemes > Deserts and dunes


288.01   Landscape: Deserts and dunes
288.02   Timothy O'Sullivan: The sand dunes of Carson Desert, Nev.
288.03   Edward Weston: Oceano Dunes
288.04   Brett Weston: Deserts
This theme includes example sections and will be revised and added to as we proceed. Suggestions for additions, improvements and the correction of factual errors are always appreciated. 
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288.01   Landscape >  Landscape: Deserts and dunes 
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Slideshow (Be patient as this has 76 slides to load.) 
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Desert viewed as an Orientalist tradition 
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Drought, desertification and environmental threat 
288.02   Landscape >  Timothy O'Sullivan: The sand dunes of Carson Desert, Nev. 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
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Timothy O'Sullivan, who had taken photographs during the American Civil War, was a part of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel - Clarence King (1867-1869)[1] and the Survey west of the 100th Parallel - George Montague Wheeler (1869-1879).[2] These surveys, like the earlier work of Lewis and Clark, have been a foundation of exploration in the American West and have influenced how it was viewed. Here were the vast open spaces that separated the coasts that were being settled in ever-increasing numbers of immigrants. Wagon trains, stage coaches and railways would cross these lands but when the King Survey passed through they were largely unexplored.
The Carson Desert in Nevada with its average precipitation of 5 inches a year is not an inviting place except around the Carson Sink where there was drinkable surface water. In March 1860 the Pony Express built an adobe enclosure with a frame house which Sir Richard Burton visited in October the same year.
17th October 1860
"Sink Station looked well from without; there was a frame house inside an adobe enclosure, and a pile of wood and a stout haystack promised fuel and fodder. The inmates however, were asleep, and it was ominously long before a door was opened. At last appeared a surly cripple, who presently disappeared to arm himself with his revolver. The judge asked civilly for a cup of water, he was told to fetch it from the lake which was not more than a mile off, though as the road was full of quagmires it would be hard to travel at night. Wood the churl would not part with; we offered to buy it, to borrow it, to replace it in the morning; he told us to go for it ourselves, and that after about two miles and a half we might chance to gather some. Certainly our party was a law-abiding and a self-governing; never did I see men so tamely bullied; they threw back the fellow's sticks, and cold, hungry, and thirsty simply began to sulk. An Indian standing by asked $20 to herd the stock for a single night. At last George, the Cordon Blue, took courage, so he went for water while others broke up a wagon plank, and supper after a fashion was concocted.[3]
The well known and widely reproduced photograph of Timothy O'Sullivan's ambulance wagon and portable darkroom used during the King Survey rolls across the sand dunes of Carson Desert, Nev.[4] with the seal of the Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, War Department, and at bottom "Geological exploration of the fortieth parallel; Clarence King, geologist in charge; T.H. O'Sullivan, phot." is an official photograph of a barren place. Within the landscape is the wagon used by Timothy O'Sullivan as his photographic wagon. The photograph can there be read at many levels, as a landscape, as a documentation of exploration, as white settlers in places previously occupied by Native Americans and as photographica. In 1869 an illustration based on the photograph was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine.[5]
Our photographer, becoming tired of too much High Rocky, took advantage of an opportunity that offered to visit the great mounds of shifting sand which are located in an arid waste nearly a hundred miles to the south of the Carson Sink. For this trip an ambulance drawn by a team of four mules was used instead of the pack mule; a change in the means of locomotion that enhanced the comfort of the artist, and enabled him to transport a sufficient quantity of water to make the variety of views that he purposed to add to his already magnificent and valuable collection.
Arriving in the vicinity of the sand-mounds, the first impression conveyed by them was that of immense snow-drifts, for in the sunlight the white sand sparkled like a hard frozen crust of snow. The contour of the mounds was undulating and very graceful, it being continually broken into the sharp edges left by the falling away of some portions of the mound, which had been undermined by the keen winds that spring up during the last hours of daylight and continue throughout the night.
Frequently, while traversing this waste, a light breeze would catch the sand, loosened by a footstep, and carry the sparkling crystals up the mound in the form of a whirlwind. This circling cloud of sand appeared each moment to increase in size and strength until the crest of the mound was attained, when, as if ambitions of continuing its flight, the dancing sand took one whirl more, then broke, and its dismembered fragments were added to the other side of the mound. It is by the whirlwinds that these great mounds of sand—some of them reaching to the height of 500 feet—are shifted from place to place.[6]
288.03   Landscape >  Edward Weston: Oceano Dunes 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
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In 1936 Edward Weston tooks his first photographs of the Oceano Dunes in California.[7] Many of the soft flowing tips of the sands echoing the nudes he was taking at the same time. Weston denied that his still lives were sexual and he did with his dunes but there is a lingering suspicion in the way curators describe them that hints at multiple interpretations. Dunes have "sinuous lines and rolling shapes"[8] and a curatorial comment from the Metropolitan Museum of Art described one in the following way:
The shapes of the peppers Weston photographed became women, his women became landscapes, and his landscapes emerged with attributes of all living nature. Whether the forms in this picture resemble waves, backs, buttocks, or breasts is immaterial. They are made of shifting sand, and that is the subject of the picture.[9]
Is it really immaterial? These were the same dunes that he photographed a naked Charis Wilson in and the woman he would marry in 1939.[10] 
288.04   Landscape >  Brett Weston: Deserts 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
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Brett Weston (1911-1993) was the second son of Edward Weston and Flora Chandler. It was Brett who went with Edward Weston and Tina Modotti to Mexico in 1925 and it was he who would print his father's work as Parkinson's disease made it impossible for him to do so himself. Brett was 25 when his father photographed the Oceano Dunes in California in 1936 with Charis Wilson. His own work features dunes and in 1949 he published the portfolio White Sands.[11] Within the portfolio he included three dunes but they seem more troubled than those of Edward the other nine photographs concentrate of vegatation having some similarities with Japanese art and calligraphy.[12] A master printer Brett sought out abstract forms and visual analogies within his photographs. 

  1. Λ Keith F. Davis & Jane L. Aspinwall, 2011, Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs, (Nelson Atkins Museum) 
  2. Λ The original field notebooks are held by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada at Reno - Wheeler Survey - Field Notebooks Of The U.S. Geographical Survey West Of The 100th Meridian - Collection no. NC319. 
  3. Λ Sir Richard Burton, 1861, The city of the saints, and across the Rocky mountains to California, quoted in - Nevada Bureau of Land Management, 1976, The Pony Express in Nevada 
  4. Λ Timothy H. O'Sullivan, "Timothy O'Sullivan's ambulance wagon and portable darkroom used during the King Survey rolls across the sand dunes of Carson Desert, Nev.", 1867, Albumen print, National Archives and Records Administration, Call Number: LOT 7096, no. 107 
  5. Λ John Samson, September 1869, "Photographs from the High Rockies", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. XXXIX, no. CCXXXII, p. 465-475. Illustration on p. 474. In the article Timothy O'Sullivan is not mentioned by name. 
  6. Λ John Samson, September 1869, "Photographs from the High Rockies", Harper's New Monthly Magazine, vol. XXXIX, no. CCXXXII, p. 474-475 
  7. Λ Edward Weston & Brett Weston, 2003, Dune, (Wild Horse Island Press) 
  8. Λ "Sand Dunes, Oceano, California", 1936, Edward Weston, Museum of Fine Art Boston, Accession number: 1983.169
    (Accessed: 25 March 2013)
  9. Λ "Dunes, Oceano", 1936, Edward Weston, Metrolpolitian Museum of Art NY, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor ompany and John C. Waddell, 1987 (1987.1100.129)
    (Accessed: 25 March 2013) 
  10. Λ Edward Weston married Charis Wilson on 24 April 1939 and she filed for divorce on 13 December 1946.
    See also - "Eloquent Nude: The Love and Legacy of Edward Weston and Charis Wilson", Documentary film. 
  11. Λ Original portfolio 1949, second edition published in 1975. There is also the book - Brett Weston, 2005, White Sands, (Lodima Press) 
  12. Λ White Sands Portfolio (12 photographs)
    (Accessed: 25 March 2014)


HomeContents > Further research

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Readings on, or by, individual photographers 
Lee Friedlander 
Friedlander, Lee, 1996, Lee Friedlander: The Desert Seen, (D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.) isbn-10: 1881616754 isbn-13: 978-1881616757 [Δ
Richard Misrach 
Misrach, Richard, 1987, Desert Cantos, (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press) [Δ
Tucker, Anne Wilkes, 1996, Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company) [With an essay by Rebecca Sonit] [Δ
Beaumont Newhall 
Newhall, Beaumont, 1986, Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston, (Boston: New York Graphic Society) [Δ
Brett Weston 
Weston, Brett, 2005, White Sands, (Lodima Press) isbn-10: 188889931X isbn-13: 978-1888899313 [Original portfolio 1949, second edition published in 1975] [Δ
Weston, Edward & Weston, Brett, 2003, Dune, (Wild Horse Island Press) isbn-10: 0967732123 isbn-13: 978-0967732121 [Δ
Edward Weston 
Newhall, Beaumont, 1986, Supreme Instants: The Photography of Edward Weston, (Boston: New York Graphic Society) [Δ
Weston, Edward & Weston, Brett, 2003, Dune, (Wild Horse Island Press) isbn-10: 0967732123 isbn-13: 978-0967732121 [Δ
If you feel this list is missing a significant book or article please let me know - Alan - 

HomeContentsPhotographers > Photographers worth investigating

Alfred Ehrhardt  (1901-1984) • Brett Weston  (1911-1993) • Edward Weston  (1886-1958) • David Zimmerman  (1955-)
HomeThemesLandscapeLandscape types > Deserts and dunes 
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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Deserts and dunes

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ThumbnailLandscape: Deserts and Dunes 
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Released (April 22, 2012)

HomeVisual indexes > Deserts and dunes

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ThumbnailBrett Weston: Deserts 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailEdward Weston: Dunes 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailJohn Divola: Isolated Houses 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailTimothy H. O'Sullivan: The sand dunes of Carson Desert, Nev. 
About this photographer | Photographs by this photographer 
ThumbnailTimothy H. O'Sullivan - Charles Lewis Gazin 
ThumbnailLandscape: Deserts and dunes 
Refreshed: 15 January 2015, 00:06
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