On Desert Time presents photographs by Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William H. Bell made in the American Southwest, 1871-1874. In those years, these photographers worked on the Wheeler Survey— a series of expeditions in the American Southwest led by Lieutenant George Wheeler that were officially titled the Geographic Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian. The Wheeler Survey was charged with the task of mapping lands for the development of military posts, transportation corridors, and mineral resources in territories ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War. Within these constraints, O’Sullivan and Bell created striking views of the desert region that reflect both the bones of the landscape and the photographers’ own experiences in the area.
Over four summers (1871–74), the photographers documented places, cultures, and geologic phenomena across lands that now lie within Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, including areas such as the Grand Canyon and Canyon de Chelly. In doing so, they both drew upon the conventions of landscape photography and painting as practiced in wetter, more verdant places and invented new visual forms that responded to the new environments they encountered. O’Sullivan’s and Bell’s pictures, printed in Washington, D.C. over the following winters and published in bound portfolios, fueled people’s curiosity about a region that was largely unknown to European Americans farther east.