Reflections: Kelly Davis on Timothy O’Sullivan

Getty Art + Ideas
Getty Art + Ideas
Reflections: Kelly Davis on Timothy O’Sullivan

We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. These recordings feature stories related to our daily lives.

This week, metadata specialist Kelly Davis longs for a hike in the Sierras as she views an 1871 photograph by Timothy O’Sullivan. To learn more about this work, visit:

Over the next few weeks, look for new recordings every other Tuesday.


JAMES CUNO: Hi, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. We’ve asked members of the Getty community to share short, personal reflections on works of art they’re thinking about right now. This week Kelly Davis discusses a Timothy O’Sullivan photograph.
KELLY DAVIS: I’m Kelly Davis, a metadata specialist at the Getty Research Institute. When I moved to California around six years ago, I started spending a lot of time outdoors, particularly in the Sierra Nevada mountains, a few hours drive north of Los Angeles. What draws me to the Sierras, besides the exercise and adventure, is how timeless they feel, almost like they’re entirely still as the world goes on around them.
An 1871 Timothy O’Sullivan photograph of an alpine lake in the Sierras looks like so many I have taken myself—jagged peaks frame an ice blue lake (even in black and white, you can tell the lake is blue), with tall pines and a boulder field to complete the scene. I could swear I’ve been in this exact spot, though it’s unlikely I have, with thousands of lakes just like this in these mountains. It’s really the feeling that the photo elicits. It makes me feel like I’m standing right there.
Ironically, though, I’m not the intended audience for such a picture, living a century too late. Photography had arrived in the US by 1839 and it didn’t take long for the government and private citizens to stream west with their cameras, documenting landscapes for map-making purposes, but also as a tool of colonialism, hoping to entice settlers. Photos of dramatic Western landscapes—shockingly different from the landscapes out East—quickly permeated mainstream culture.
Before I moved to LA, I had spent my whole life on the East Coast. I thought I knew what mountains were, but hiking in the Sierra makes it clear that I had no idea. Even though I’ve seen these vistas myself, O’Sullivan’s photographs have the same effect on me I imagine they had 150 years ago—I gasp. And I am immediately taken back to my last visit, while dreaming of my next.
Last summer, I was training to hike Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, standing over 14,000 feet high in Sierra crest. I spent all summer obsessed with the mountains and hiking every weekend. But then fire season rolled around, and by the date of my planned trip, the Sequoia Complex fire had burned 100 thousand acres through National Parks and Forests, including the Inyo National Forest, where Whitney sits. I drove to Lone Pine anyway, the gateway town to Whitney, and I even started up the trail, only to turn around from reports of smoke ahead. The day I was supposed to summit, the National Forests in California closed entirely, and I knew any summit attempt was out of reach for some time.
As I wait to get back to these mountains, I’m pleased to have O’Sullivan’s early images of my beloved peaks around to look at. While so much has changed in the populated world since the 1870s, this mountain landscape has remained largely the same. It brings me peace to know that after all the trials of the past year, there will be views like this waiting for me on my next visit to the Sierra.
CUNO: To view Timmothy O’Sullivan’s photograph Alpine Lake, in the Sierra Nevada, California, from 1871, click the link in this episode’s description, or look for it on

Author: Getty Media

Getty staff select highlights of Getty multimedia, new and from the archives.