Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, New Mexico, 1873

Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, New Mexico, 1873
albumen print, mounted on two-toned Wheeler Survey board
printed photographer's credit, title, date, number 'No. 10' and War Department Corps of Engineers U.S. Army survey information (mount, recto)
image/sheet: 11 x 8 in. (28 x 20.4 cm.)
mount: 21 1/2 x 16 3/4 in. (54.5 x 42.5 cm.)
Wach Gallery, Avon Lake, Ohio;
acquired from the above by the present owner, 1988.
James D. Horan, Timothy O'Sullivan: America's Forgotten Photographer, Bonanza Books, New York, 1966, p. 310 (variant).
George M. Wheeler, Wheeler’s Photographic Survey of the American West, 1871-1873, Dover Publications, New York, 1983, frontispiece and pl. 41.
Ithaca, New York, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, An American Portrait: Photographs from the Collection of Diann and Thomas Mann, April 1–June 12, 1994, no. 86.

Lot Essay

Located in northeastern Arizona, near the Four Corners area, Canyon de Chelly was established as a National Park in 1931. Derived from the Navajo word meaning ‘among the cliffs,’ Canyon de Chelly is unique among the National Parks as it is comprised entirely of Navajo Tribal Trust Land and sustains to this day a living community of Navajo people who have been connected to this majestic landscape for some 5,000 years.

In the middle of the 19th century, the United States Government undertook several landmark geographical surveys. Timothy O’Sullivan, who had made a name for himself during the Civil War as part of Matthew Brady’s team of photographers, was the official photographer for the King expedition of the 1860s, and later accompanied First Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler on what became known as ‘The Wheeler Survey,’ from 1871 to 1874. Wheeler had been charged with leading a survey of a section of the lands lying to the west of the 100th meridian which ran north to south through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

O’Sullivan’s iconic image of Cañon de Chelle, and the ruins of ancient cliff-dwellers known as ‘White House Ruins’ is one of the standouts of the 19th-century Survey photographs. Made with a cumbersome camera and fragile glass plate negatives, O’Sullivan succeeded against all odds in this terrain. Wheeler himself commented in his journals in 1871 that, ‘Mr. O’Sullivan, in the face of all obstacles, made negatives at all possible points, some of which were saved...’ (Horan, Timothy O’Sullivan, p. 237).

Numerous photographers have since visited the site, and all have held O’Sullivan’s image up as the standard. Ansel Adams photographed the scene in 1941, writing to Nancy and Beaumont Newhall, ‘I photographed the White House Ruins from almost the identical spot and time of the O’Sullivan picture!!’ (Alinder, Ansel Adams: Letters 1916-1984, Bulfinch, New York, 2001, p. 136). A print of this image was also owned by Adams, which he loaned for Newhall’s 1937 exhibition of photography at The Museum of Modern Art.

The print offered here is in exceptional condition and tonality.

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