At first glance, the landscape photographs of the American West lining the walls at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum of Art don't appear to be anything special.
With their sepia tones and blank skies, they aren't nearly as colorful as the snapshots you might have taken yourself on that car trip through the Rockies. And they're certainly not as striking as the Ansel Adams print in your dentist's waiting room.
But a longer look - and a bit of historic perspective - might show you why Adams himself collected these prints and hailed them as crucial to the development of American photography.
These pictures by the pioneering photographers William Bell and Timothy H. O'Sullivan provided many 19th-century Americans with their first unvarnished views of the mountain West. They studied them in illustrated survey books and gazetteers, peered at them through stereopticons in their parlors, and saw them mounted as multi-plate panoramas at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia in 1876.
The Smart Museum show "One/Many: Western American Survey Photographs by Bell and O'Sullivan" consists of more than 60 pictures Bell and O'Sullivan took - under extremely challenging conditions - as they accompanied two geological survey expeditions through the West in the years 1867-1874.
Absent from the exhibit are examples of the equipment Bell and O'Sullivan had to trundle through mountain passes and across deserts to take their pictures - the cumbersome wooden cameras, chests of chemicals and portable darkrooms. Inclusion of such material might have given viewers a better appreciation of the photographers' accomplishments.
The Irish-born O'Sullivan, who had been a field photographer during the Civil War, used the wet-plate process for his pictures. That meant that after he had set up his camera and focused it, he had to return to his darkroom, where he poured liquid collodion over a sheet of glass and dunked it in a water bath of silver nitrate to sensitize it. He then had to place the treated glass sheet in a light-proof container, rush it to the camera, make his five-to-30-second exposure, and then rush back to the darkroom to develop his negative before it dried.
Bell was from Philadelphia and was chief photographer for the Army Medical Museum in Washington before joining the expeditions to the West. He used the newer dry-plate collodion process, which meant his negatives were more portable than O'Sullivan's, but they had the drawbacks of being even more time-consuming to prepare and producing more inconsistent results.
But despite their primitive equipment, Bell and O'Sullivan showed considerable sophistication in their photographic technique. In shooting such scenes as waterfalls, for example, they positioned their cameras at high points at considerable distances from their subjects and used the longest lenses available. The resulting pictures lacked an establishing "frame" and seemed to leave the viewer suspended somewhere over the raging water.
The West Bell and O'Sullivan photographed was a stark place of bare rock and scraggly trees, and they made no attempt to soften or sentimentalize it. To underline the bluntness of their view, the exhibit's curator, photographic historian Joel Snyder, has included several pictures by another survey photographer, William Henry Jackson, whose shots proved more popular with the 19th-century public.
In contrast to Bell and O'Sullivan, Jackson attempted to make the West more hospitable - more an extension of the settled East. His scenes, sometimes framed by welcoming trees, seem somehow softer. Even the most naturalistic of Jackson's photos on display, one of Colorado's Mount of the Holy Cross, seems to have a hint of Victorian sentimentality about it.
The hard edge of the photos by Bell and O'Sullivan might also have to do with the lack of human erosion in the scenes they recorded. They were among the first white Americans to visit the area and were looking at what have now become familiar sights with a totally fresh eye.
In their pictures, there are no tourist stairs to the ancient ruins at Canyon de Chelly, Ariz. There are no safety-fenced outlooks at the Grand Canyon; just rocks and a river a mile below.
In the exhibit, the photos are accompanied by some of the relief maps made on the same expeditions, and they reinforce the sense that the West has changed enormously since the visits of Bell and O'Sullivan. Few of the maps show anything of a human presence.