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Timothy H. O'Sullivan
Historic Spanish Record of the Conquest, South Side of Inscription Rock, N.M.
[Geographical & Geological Explorations & Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, vol. 1]
20.3 × 27.4 cm (image/paper); 40.7 × 50.7 cm (mount)
Art Institute of Chicago
Photography Gallery Fund, Reference Number: 1959.615.25
Following the end of the American Civil War, the United States Congress sponsored several major expeditions to chart the western lands, still largely unknown in terms of geography and resources. Such surveys brought together scientists, topographers, and photographers to document their findings. In 1871 Timothy O’Sullivan, who had proven his proficiency in field photography during the war and on an earlier western expedition, was asked by George M. Wheeler to join a government survey of lands west of the 100th Meridian. Survey objectives included achieving a more precise record of the U.S.-Mexico border and studying rocks and plant life, as well as facilitating future commercial development. Factual and blunt, yet sophisticated in composition and often unexpectedly self-referential, O’Sullivan’s pictures have intrigued modern viewers. In this image of Inscription Rock in modern New Mexico, which bears the chiseled record of the passage of a Spaniard centuries earlier, he slyly puns on the word "ruler" and suggests perhaps that his own recording equipment can measure and surpass the record of that earlier conquest.