The photographs of the West of United-States were, initially, the result of scientific expeditions. Photographic equipement was heavy and bulky, it was therefore very difficult to carry across these remote places. Many specialists took part in these expeditions: cartographers, geologists, diverse scientists and explorers. At that time, Photography was intended to record the visited places and was not considered to be an artistic medium. However, the multiple travels to the West offered impressive and unparalleled images of it, later becoming famous works of art. It is this acceptance, given by photographers such as Ansel ADAMS or curators such as Beaumont NEWHALL, that persists today. The 19th century expeditions involved significant risks, documenting these unknown lands was quite an adventure. It is a dimension we can still observe in contemporary photo projects, like that of Mitch DOBROWNER (1956-), in wich he chases storms in order to show the greatness of Nature.
Timothy O’SULLIVAN (1840-1882) was firstly known as a war photographer with photographs taken during the Civil War (1861-1865). From 1867 to 1870 he photographed for the geological survey led by the geologist Clarence KING (1842-1901), along the 40th parallel, between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. Then, from 1871 to 1873, Timothy O’SULLIVAN photographed the American territory in the west of the 100th meridian (meridian located in the center of the United States), in particular during an expedition led by explorer George WHELLER (1842-1905). These expeditions were financed by the army and cover geology, zoology and topography.
Now famous, Timothy O’SULLIVAN’s photographs were originally intended to serve as a survey and illustration of the places explored. However, the power of the subjects he photographed tip his works towards an aesthetic of the romantic landscape, where nature unfolds in all its vastness. While it is unlikely that Timothy O’SULLIVAN had seen any of Caspar David FRIEDRICH’s paintings – to which one may be tempted to compare some of his photographs – the painters of the Hudson river School and the Luminist movement were well known in the United States for their works imbued with European Romanticism. Thus, O’SULLIVAN’s pictures seem to fluctuate between two uses, and historians are still debating whether O’SULLIVAN’s aim was scientific or artistic.
Bradford WASHBURN (1910-2007) is an american photographer, explorer and mountaineer. With his wife Barbara WAHBURN (1914-2014), they explored and mapped Alaska together, especially Denali Park (formerly known as Mount McKinley Park). Not only did he open mountaineering routes and make the first ascents of several mountains in Alaska, he also photographed the breathtaking landscapes he was exploring. Fascinated by the Yukon and Alaska, Bradford WASHBURN was attracted to this new place where everything remained to be discovered. He explored this territory tirelessly between 1930 and 1955.
The photographs of Bradford WASHBURN were, like the ones of Timothy O’SULLIVAN, the small pictures taken beside much more important adventures. WASHBURN had, for example, taken enormous risks by photographing by plane in dangerous conditions. The primary purpose of his photographs was to do topography. WASHBURN is a pioneer in this field, using its large format camera in airplanes whose doors had been removed. He and his equipment were attached by ropes to avoid being sucked out of the vehicle. WASHBURN was a friend of Ansel ADAMS. Its influence can be noted and it is not by chance if the photographs of WASHBURN are more than simple tools. We can easily detect the technical mastery and the subtlety of the compositions. These photographs were discovered worldwide in 1990, when Tony DECANAES exhibited the work of a lifetime at the Panopticon Gallery in Boston.
Extremely modest, Bradford WASHBURN considered his work in science education to be the most exciting: "The top of Mount McKinley was thrilling [...] but there’s nothing on earth more exciting than the eyes of a youngster at the instant of discovery."
Mitch DOBROWNER (1956-) is a contemporary photographer, he has received several important awards for his landscapes where nature occupies a prominent place. Mitch DOBROWNER travels the United States in search of landscapes and tornadoes. The images are so impressive that in 2012, before the publication of the photos by the magazine National Geographic, the publisher asked him to see the original files. Still, not the least photomontage. Mitch DOBROWNER braves the elements to make these great photographs. Each expedition is prepared, and he never goes alone. He travels between 10 and 15 days, about 3 or 4 times a year, awaiting climatic phenomena.
Initiated by famous Storm Hunter Roger HILL, Mitch DOBROWNER is passionate about the visual and scientific aspects of tornadoes, storm super cells and other titanic clouds. "They [the storms] take on so many different aspects, personalities and faces; I’m in awe while watching them. These storms are amazing sights to witness and I’m just happy to be there, shot or no shot" said DOBROWNER.
The importance he gives to the whole process needed to make a photo is just like an adventure for him: "The whole journey of the print is what fascinates me. I’m thinking of going someplace. I drive or get on a plane, land, go to a hotel or camp at a location. I don’t know what I’m going to find. I see something, I take a picture, look at it, grade it—hey, it looks pretty good. I make a print; I make another one that’s a little better. Eventually a gallery sees it and someone buys it for a lot of money and it’s hanging in their house."