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Review: Timothy H. O’Sullivan/Art Institute of Chicago

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"Virginia City Mine, Cave-in," ca. 1867-1868.

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Between 1867 and 1869, the U.S. government sponsored a survey of the wondrous lands between the California border and Cheyenne, Wyoming, including in the team photographer Timothy H. O’Sullivan, who set about shooting intriguing rock formations of various and undreamt of kinds, views from above of budding towns, a vista here and there, and—the gems of the show—studies of the gold and silver mines and miners that are worthy of Lewis Hine’s famous twentieth-century takes on industrial work. Deep in the Comstock Lode, O’Sullivan, using magnesium flares for light, captured miners’ working faces, veins and seams in near darkness and withering heat; in one brilliant image, the miner seems to merge with the rock like an insect trapped in amber. As we might expect, geologist Clarence King, who led the survey that bears his name, did not include the mining images in his report. The pattern for photography of the West had been set—the myth of magnificent virgin lands versus their rape. (Michael Weinstein)

Through January 15 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan

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