© Timothy H. O'Sullivan/From Shoshone Falls/Radius Books
“I think a lot about [Timothy H.] O’Sullivan,” says photographer Michael Light, who is at work on a major project creating aerial photographs of archetypal landscapes of the American West. “Anyone dealing with representing the space and habitation, as well as the geology of the West, has to go back to O’Sullivan.”
After fighting in, and later photographing, the American Civil War, O’Sullivan joined government-funded geological survey expeditions as an official photographer. O’Sullivan was the first to photograph in many areas of the West, and his images have become icons of both American and photographic history.
Though the Western landscape is vastly altered since O’Sullivan’s time, and the opportunity to be the first to photograph an element of the West no longer exists, Light can still draw on O’Sullivan’s pioneering work for inspiration.
“As any ambitious photographer is, I am concerned not with being the first, but with offering a useful and revelatory viewpoint that hasn’t necessarily been seen before,” Light says.
To create his unique perspective, Light often pilots a small airplane at low altitudes, which shows “a level of commitment on my part,” Light says. It’s very different from O’Sullivan’s work, which took perseverance and physical prowess, and required him to walk with a mule-drawn cart full of glass negatives. O’Sullivan’s work was “pretty muscular photography,” Light says.
Light also admires the albums of expedition photographs O’Sullivan presented to Congress, and the “almost biblical authority” they had as tactile objects. Light has assembled many of his own photographs into large-scale, handmade books, going “in the opposite direction” of the trends of the “cyber-century,” in which the physical object has been devalued.
Light says he has “always been interested in work on an archival level that was never made with artistic intention, and what possible artistic overtones I might be able to tease out. My own aerial negative making is somewhere between documentary and the layering of art, and I hope it occasionally functions on both levels.”
It’s nearly impossible today to provide a first look at something, as O’Sullivan did, but there are still a number of ways to make meaningful photographs. “One is [to achieve] a fresh perspective on something,” Light says.
“It may be delusional, but I do hope that my pictures are useful somehow in a hundred year’s time.”