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Timothy O'Sullivan

Timothy O'Sullivan


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Timothy O'Sullivan was born in New York City in about 1840. As a young man he was employed by the photographer, Matthew Brady. O'Sullivan went to work in his Washington studio where he served his apprenticeship under Alexander Gardner.

On the outbreak of the American Civil War there was a dramatic increase in the demand for work at Brady's studios as soldiers wanted to be photographed in uniform before going to the front-line. The following officers in the Union Army were all photographed at the Matthew Brady Studio: Nathaniel Banks, Don Carlos Buell, Ambrose Burnside, Benjamin Butler, George Custer, David Farragut, John Gibbon, Winfield Hancock, Samuel Heintzelman, Joseph Hooker, Oliver Howard, David Hunter,John Logan, Irvin McDowell, George McClellan, James McPherson, George Meade, David Porter, William Rosecrans, John Schofield, William Sherman, Daniel Sickles, George Stoneman, Edwin Sumner, George Thomas, Emory Upton, James Wadsworth and Lew Wallace.

In July, 1861, Matthew Brady and Alfred Waud, an artist working for Harper's Weekly, travelled to the front-line and witnessed Bull Run, the first major battle of the war. The battle was a disaster for the Union Army and Brady came close to being captured by the enemy.

Soon after arriving back from the front Matthew Brady decided to make a photographic record of the American Civil War. He sent O'Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, James Gardner, William Pywell, George Barnard, and seventteen other men to travel throughout the country taking photographs of the war. Each one had his own travelling darkroom so that that collodion plates could be processed on the spot. This included O'Sullivan's famous Harvest of Death, a photograph of dead soldiers at Gettysburg. and Dead Boy at Fredericksburg.

Matthew Brady continued to take credit for the photographs taken by his employees. Unhappy with this policy, O'Sullivan, like Alexander Gardner, left Brady and established his own photographic business. In 1870 he went to Panama as a photographer and between 1871 and 1874 carried out a series of photographic surveys of the United States.

Timothy O'Sullivan, who was appointed chief photographer for the Department of the Treasury in 1880, died of tuberculosis in Staten Island on 14th January, 1882.

Brady's Photographic Corps, heartily welcomed in each of our armies, has been a feature as distinct and omnipresent as the corps of balloon, telegraph, and signal operators. They have threaded the weary stadia of every march; have hung on the the skirts of every battle scene; have caught the compassion of the hospital, the romance of the bivouac, the pomp and panoply of the field review.

Brady's artists have accompanied the army on nearly all its marches, planting their sun batteries by the side of our Generals' more deathful ones, and taking towns, cities and forts with much less noise and vastly more expedition. The result is a series of pictures christened Incidents of War, and nearly as interesting as the war itself: for they constitute the history of it, and appeal directly to the great throbbing hearts of the north.


Timothy O’Sullivan Western Photographer’s Timeless Legacy.

There were no roads no towns. The extreme summer heat and winter cold were almost unbearable. But from a former Civil War-ambulance pulled by four sturdy mules, one of America’s greatest photographers recorded images of a 19th-century civil war, a forbidding Western frontier and the people who lived within these scenes. They still peer beyond the page, across the centuries, and into our eyes today.

For Timothy H. O’Sullivan, born in Ireland in 1840, life was always going to be hard and unforgiving. Like so many of their countrymen, the family abandoned the ancestral homeland and crossed the north Atlantic on one of the “death ships,” fleeing the writhing famine of the 1840s for hopeful shores in America. Years later, O’Sullivan would claim Staten Island as his place of origin and that he had served six months in the Union Army, both of which are thought to be chosen embellishments, but reflective of a period when status was important and the Irish were an oft-despised immigrant minority.

He was fortunate to meet neighbor and noted photographer Mathew Brady and at the age of 16 was working for him in his New York City studio. In a few years, as the Civil War began, he was transferred to Brady’s Washington, D.C., gallery under staff photographer (and Scottish immigrant) Alexander Gardner. One of his first field expeditions, as part of “Brady’s Photographic Corps,” was to the Battle of Bull Run in Manassas, Virginia, on July 21, 1861. The 21 year old was nearly killed by an exploding rebel shell from field artillery, destroying his camera.

O’Sullivan survived the war, photographing the destruction for four years. His most famous wartime photograph, “Harvest of Death,” (July 4, 1863), showed the dead freshly collapsed on Gettysburg farmland. His large-format and chemically coated glass plates left crystal-clear and psychologically indelible images that will forever chill those peering into our nation’s past.

The bombardment ended the War was over. There was no returning to a portrait studio.

O’Sullivan’s lust for adventure was now met by joining government-sponsored explorations. He took on the hardships of an 1867-69 geological survey of the 40th Parallel, exploring the area between the Rockies and Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1870, he even traveled to Panama with a survey team to research a future canal across the isthmus.

In 1871, he was on the Lt. George Wheeler Southwestern Geological Expedition, including a harrowing journey up the Colorado River, where many of his photographic plates were lost and the crew members almost starved after their rations went into the river in a boating accident. Sullivan’s images of the canyon lands, pueblos and the Southwestern Indian tribes they met along the way are timeless and a strong precursor to Edward Curtis’s famed ethnological study, The North American Indian.

He spent his last years as official photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. His legendary Irish luck ended in 1876, when he buried his only child, a stillborn son, and watched his wife, Laura Virginia Pywell, succumb to tuberculosis in October 1881 as she stayed with her family, without him. He, too, contracted the lung disease and died three months later at his parents’ home in January 1882.

Tom Augherton is an Arizona-based freelance writer. Do you know about an unsung character of the Old West whose story we should share here? Send the details to [email protected], and be sure to include high-resolution historical photos.


Photographs

Sand Dunes - Carson Desert, Nevada. Photo shows the wagon O'Sullivan used to carry photographic equipment. Geological exploration of the fortieth parallel Clarence King.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1867.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Black Canyon


Photograph showing rock walls of Black Canyon along the Colorado River. Published in: Wheeler's photographic survey of the American West, 1871-1873 by George M. Wheeler with 50 landscape photographs by Timothy O'Sullivan and William Bell.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1873.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Shoshone Falls

Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho. Part of geographical and geological explorations and surveys west of the 100th meridian, expedition of 1874, under command of Lieut. Geo. M. Wheeler, Corps of Eng'rs.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1874.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Inscription Rock

Photograph showing rock in New Mexico with a Spanish inscription translated as "By this place passed Ensign Don Joseph de Payba Basconzelos, in the year. 1726." Published in: Wheeler's photographic survey of the American West, 1871-1873 by George M. Wheeler with 50 landscape photographs by Timothy O'Sullivan and William Bell.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1873.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Drum Corps - 61st NY Infantry

Drum Corps of the 61st New York Infantry. Falmouth, Va., March 1863.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1863.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

North Anna River, Virginia

Pontoon bridges on North Anna, below railroad bridge, where a portion of the 2nd Corps under Gen. Hancock, crossed 23d May, 1864.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1864.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Confederate Prisoners

Confederate prisoners captured at cavalry fight at Aldie, Va., June, 1864.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1864.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

A Harvest of Death

A harvest of death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania / negative by T.H. O'Sullivan positive by A Gardner.
Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - July, 1863.

Click here to visit the Library of Congress website to view photographs by Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Sand Dunes - Nevada

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1867.

Black Canyon

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1873.

Shoshone Falls

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1874.

Inscription Rock

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1873.

Drum Corps - 61st NY Infantry

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1863.

North Anna River, Virginia

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1864.

Confederate Prisoners

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1864.

A Harvest of Death

Photograph by T.H. O'Sullivan - 1863.

Barnum's American Museum

For 12½ cents, visitors to Barnum's American Museum could see the Feejee Mermaid, the Witch of Staten Island, then venture up to the rooftop for a view of the city and some ice cream.

< Broadway & Fulton Street >

New York from the Steeple of St. Paul’s Chapel, Looking East, South, and West by J.W. Hill and Henry A. Papprill, 1848. To the left — Barnum's Musuem. To the right — Brady's Studio.

Brady's Daguerreotype Studio

Admission Free — Visitors to Brady's Studio could gaze upon his Gallery Wall and see portraits of Daniel Webster, Dolly Madison, Andrew Jackson, and John Quincy Adams.

NY Times Article

The Hidden History of Photography and New York
Click here to read article in
The New York Times by Jordan G. Teicher, 02/22/2017.

Biography of Tim

By James D. Horan — Timothy O’Sullivan, America’s Forgotten Photographer (New York: Bonanza Books, 1966).

The Daguerreotype

The Dag. in America by Beaumont Newhall (New York: Dover Publications, 1976).

The Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan


I first learned about Timothy H. O'Sullivan while studying the history of photography at New York University in the spring of 1989. Professor Silver clicked back and forth in a slide show comparing O’Sullivan’s photograph, Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, N.M., taken in 1873 with Ansel Adams’ view taken in 1942.

I became curious about this photographer who inspired Ansel Adams with his large-format, view camera. I then went to the Museum of Modern Art to view the photographs of O’Sullivan. At the time, I worked as a darkroom technician restoring old black and white photographs, while studying photojournalism at college.

New York University is an important place in the history of photography. This is where Brady's mentor, Samuel F.S.B. Morse, experimented with the new discovery he recently brought back from Paris — the Daguerreotype. His colleague, Dr. John William Draper, a chemistry professor, took one of the first known portraits with a camera on the rooftop of the university at Washington Square.

Little is known about O’Sullivan. As James D. Horan states in his biography, Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer, “There were few clues, only his name, a four-line obituary. ” Though we don’t know much about Tim. What remains are his photographs.

One day after class, I stood on the corner of Broadway and Tenth, the former location of one of Brady’s Studios. Looking at Grace Church, I thought about O'Sullivan and his photographs. Over to the right, down the street, is The Ritz where I saw The Replacements in 1986 perform songs from their album Tim. I then decided to write a book about O'Sullivan as a young apprentice at Mathew Brady's studio and the title would be Tim.


The Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Oct. 26, 2017: I first learned about Timothy H. O'Sullivan while studying the history of photography at New York University in the spring of 1989. Professor Silver clicked back and forth in a slide show comparing O’Sullivan’s photograph, Ancient Ruins in the Cañon de Chelle, N.M., taken in 1873 with Ansel Adams’ view taken in 1942.

I became curious about this photographer who inspired Ansel Adams with his large-format, view camera. I then went to the Museum of Modern Art to view the photographs of O’Sullivan. At the time, I worked as a darkroom technician restoring old black and white photographs, while studying photojournalism at college.


New York University is an important place in the history of photography. This is where Brady's mentor, Samuel F.S.B. Morse, experimented with the new discovery he recently brought back from Paris — the Daguerreotype. His colleague, Dr. John William Draper, a chemistry professor, took one of the first known portraits with a camera on the rooftop of the university at Washington Square.

Little is known about O’Sullivan. As James D. Horan states in his biography, Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer, “There were few clues, only his name, a four-line obituary. ” Though we don’t know much about Tim. What remains are his photographs.

One day after class, I stood on the corner of Broadway and Tenth, the former location of one of Brady’s Studios. Looking at Grace Church, I thought about O'Sullivan and his photographs. Over to the right, down the street, is The Ritz where I saw The Replacements in 1986 perform songs from their album Tim. I then decided to write a book about O'Sullivan as a young apprentice at Mathew Brady's studio, combined with my experience as a darkroom technician, and the title would be Tim.


Timothy O'Sullivan - History

Timothy O'Sullivan, Irish Photographer of the Civil War (Image via Wikipedia)

The American Civil War of 1861-65 took place some 150 years ago. It is very difficult for us to imagine what is was like to experience the upheaval of that period, or to have borne witness to the horrors of battlefields such as Gettysburg and Petersburg. However, there is one medium that has left us with imagery taken direct from these fields of conflict- photography. Famous practitioners such as Irish-American Mathew Brady and Scotsman Alexander Gardner remain well known, and many of their photographs still achieve a wide circulation today. Another was Irishman Timothy O’Sullivan, who worked for both Brady and Gardner during the war. He succeeded in capturing some of the most recognisable and emotive images of the Civil War.

There is some question as to Timothy O’Sullivan’s place of birth. O’Sullivan himself once claimed on a job application that he was born in New York, but his death certificate records his place of birth as Ireland. It is possible that O’Sullivan lied about his place of birth to improve his chances of winning the position. He is now variously described as being born in New York or Ireland, with institutions such as the Smithsonian listing him as being of Irish birth. (1)

O’Sullivan learned his trade from Brady before the outbreak of the war, initially being based in the Irish-American’s New York studio. He was later moved to Brady’s Washington D.C. office, which was then run by Alexander Gardner. When war broke out O’Sullivan initially worked with Brady, and one of his cameras was reportedly blown up at the first Battle of Bull Run. As it became apparent that the fighting would drag on, the Irishman was sent to locations such as South Carolina where he took photographs with Union armies in the field. In 1862, Gardner ended his association with Brady and set up his own business. O’Sullivan decided to join the Scotsman and work as his assistant, a position he held for the remainder of the war. (2)

The Photographer and his kit. Image taken by Timothy O'Sullivan at Manassas, July 1862 (Library of Congress)

It was while working with Gardner in 1863 that O’Sullivan captured some of his most famous images. Gardner and his team were the first photographers to arrive at the Gettysburg battlefield, taking their first shots on 5th July 1863.The Irishman was responsible for the famous images ‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter’ taken in Devil’s Den and ‘A Harvest of Death’ which showed Union dead on the field. Research by William A. Frassanito has established that the Confederate sharpshooter image was set up by the photographers, as the dead Rebel in the image appears in a number of other photographs placed in different positions. Scott Hartwig, Supervisory Historian at Gettysburg National Military Park has recently presented a compelling argument at the From the Fields of Gettysburg blog that the men in the ‘Harvest of Death’ images are soldiers of the 121st Pennsylvania on McPherson’s Ridge. (3)

The image of the Confederate Sharpshooter taken by Timothy O'Sullivan on the Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania in July 1863 (Library of Congress)

O’Sullivan continued to take photographs throughout the remainder of the war, and was present at Petersburg and Appomattox, where he shot the McLean House in which Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant. When Gardner published his Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War in 1866, many of the images were credited to the Irishman. O’Sullivan’s sense of adventure did not end with the conclusion of the war. In 1867 he joined Clarence King’s geological survey of the fortieth parallel as a photographer, with a mission to document the territory between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. He was back in the West again in 1871 when he accompanied the geological surveys west of the one hundredth meridian. He would go on to lead an expedition himself in 1873 where he took some notable images of Apache scouts. (4)

'A Harvest of Death' taken by Timothy O'Sullivan on the Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania, July 1863 (Library of Congress)

Unfortunately the Irishman was not destined to have the opportunity for a long career he contracted tuberculosis at the age of 42 and died on Staten Island on 14th January 1882, where he is buried in an unmarked grave at St. Peter’s Catholic Cemetery. Despite his premature death, O’Sullivan’s work has proved a fitting legacy. The photographs he created continue to fascinate and horrify in equal measure, standing as testament to the brutal realities of conflict during the American Civil War.

The McLean House at Appomattox Court House, site of the surrender of Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant. Image by Timothy O'Sullivan taken in April 1865 (Library of Congress)

References & Further Reading

Foresta, Merry A. 1996. Smithsonian American Art Museum: Timothy H. O’Sullivan taken from American Photographs: The First Century

Frassanito, William A. 1975. Gettysburg: A Journey in Time

Horan, James David 1966. Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer


Debating Timothy O’Sullivan (1840-1882) Part One

In retrospect, it is something of an oddity that twenty-one year old Timothy O’Sullivan was not drafted into the ranks of the Union Army for the American Civil War. After all many young Irishmen, fresh to the shores of their adopted country voluntarily joined the military in hopes of quelling the rising anti-Irish sentiment in the Northeast towards foreigners. But O’Sullivan found another role for himself in the terrible war, as assistant photographer to Alexander Gardner, covering the aftermaths of battles and making a unique record of the waging of the first modern industrialized conflict and it unimaginable costs. The point may seem a small one–O’Sullivan did not fight in the Civil War—but his point of origin is uncertain and it is not known where he was born. At one point, the photographer claimed that he was born in America, but upon his death, his own father noted for the official record that his son, an obscure documenter of the American West, had been born in Ireland. And it seems more than probable that the elder Mr. Sullivan was correct: if Timothy O’Sullivan had been of Irish descent and born in America, he would have been drafted and we would remember the Civil War in a far different fashion. Along with Gardner, O’Sullivan made iconic images, once long-lost and forgotten, of a tragic war are now an indelible part of our national psyche. Only two years later, O’Sullivan embarked upon another groundbreaking journey, going into remote corners of a vast desert territory in the American West, in the employ of a man in search of catastrophes.

Clarence King, Salt Lake City, Utah Camp, October 1868

That man was Clarence King (1842-1901), who had also not served in the military during the Civil War. His reasons for not being a soldier seem to be somewhat different. The facts are sketchy, but, given that this young man was once arrested and charged with being a “draft dodger” and given the fact that the case was dropped, suggest that the wealth and privilege of his family exempted him from service. Although the Civil War was a highly emotional conflict and we remember it as being a morally driven cause on both sides, the actual potential combatants were hardly enthusiastic about serving. Like the Viet Nam war, one hundred years later, the privileged young men could avoid the war, while the lower class males–who really had no economic stakes in play–bore the burden. While O’Sullivan was roaming the killing grounds, Clarence King was studying geology and acquainting himself with the scientific debates of his day. On one hand, King was an intellectual and an academic, on the other hand, he was a bit of an adventurer and a believer in the manifest destiny of America, which would be carried forward on the tracks of railroad lines. The Yale graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School became the leader of the Survey of the 40th Parallel at a time when the surveys of the unchartered sections of the West were transitioning away from the military and into the hands of scientists. The goal was not military conquest but conquest through scientific marking and a study of the geology, the natural resources and mineral wealth that coincidentally lay along the route of the railroad. As King later remarked, “Eighteen sixty-seven marks, in the history of national geological work, a turning point, when the science ceased to be dragged in the dust of rapid exploration and took a commanding position in the professional work of the country.”

O’Sullivan, an experienced photographer, was, for all intents and purposes, a valuable member of the crew that worked with King. While the scientists and geologists collected specimens and made scientific observations and recordings, the role of the photographer was to make visual records of the typology, the landscape, the vistas, the details of the terrain. It was not his job, for example, to photograph flora and fauna or insects or the animals killed and turned into artifacts. O’Sullivan photographed the land itself and here is where his task transcends mere objective record and metamorphosed into something quite different, resulting in a body of dramatic photographs, flattened vistas composed of shapes and shadows and edges, suggesting to modern eyes an almost abstract view of terrain. Although O’Sullivan worked with King for three seasons from 1867 to 1869, the Survey leader seems to have made sparing use of the photographs which do not seem to have been given any more value than any other artifact collected during the project. O’Sullivan’s work with King was intermittent and he also spent several seasons with the (Lieutenant George) Wheeler Survey of the 100th Meridian during 1874, 1875, and 1876. During his tenure with the Wheeler Survey, O’Sullivan was working with photographer William Bell, who would be given less responsibility than the Irishman, perhaps due to his less experienced status. These images were published in an album, which according to Lauren Higbee in her article on “The Wheeler Album: Photographic Rhetoric and the Politics of Western Expansion,” was “ a site of political maneuvering amongst the above participants as well as a political tool wielded by Congress to legitimize its policies in post-Civil War America amid a time of great political corruption and upheaval.” Higbee looked at that album as an “exhibition,” if you will, of the government funded project and functioned as both an advertisement of accomplishment and a scientific showcase of an unknown region of the nation.

Timothy O’Sullivan.View of the White House, Ancestral Pueblo Native American (Anasazi) ruins in Canyon de Chelly

In fact, the body of work produced by O’Sullivan faded from memory and was stored away until seventy years later the photographer Ansel Adams stumbled across O’Sullivan’s landscapes. According to a 2008 article by Britt Salvesen, then of the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Adams had acquired an 1874 album from Sierra Club officer Francis Farquhar. This album was the Geographical Explorations and Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, a record of Wheeler’s Survey, which O’Sullivan joined between sessions with King. Perhaps the most famous of the images by O’Sullivan was that of Canyon de Chelly, a striking cliff face in New Mexico. Later Adams himself would retrace the footsteps of O’Sullivan and photograph the site from the same vantage point on his own, but formally speaking, O’Sullivan was seen as a precursor of modernism and placed in the emerging photographic canon. Although those art historians who are more interested in historical context and social conditions are less interested in the O’Sullivan-the-modernist narrative, the photographer still holds a privileged place in the photographic pantheon and this elevation is still based upon the striking visual nature of many of his works.

Timothy O’Sullivan. Vermillion Cañon, Colorado (1872)

By the 1930s, photographers were used to skewed views of the landscape, odd oblique camera angles and unexpected vantage points and O’Sullivan’s photographs were seen within this new context, a context that did not exist when he was working for King and later for another military and mapping survey, for Lieutenant George Wheeler in 1869. Adams called the prescient images taken by O’Sullivan to the attention of Beaumont Newhall of the Museum of Modern Art, and Newhall included O’Sullivan in his centenary (and landmark) celebration of photography, “Photography: 1839–1937,” held in the Spring of 1937. Salvesen mentioned that Adams interpreted O’Sullivan’s work in light of Surrealism, a movement now waning. (There was also the body of Surrealist photography that was emerging from this current movement, but the exact reference of Adams is unclear and he probably was speaking metaphorically). Thanks to the newly established department for photography at the Museum there would be a genuine and on-going attempt to build a historical archive for American photography which would lead to previously ignored works being rediscovered and reconsidered, including O’Sullivan, whose work was also admired by Alfred Stieglitz.

Is is unclear, in 1937, the extent to which the full range of the photography of the West was either known or understood, and it is also unclear if Adams or Newhall understood the extent to which O’Sullivan’s work was “strange,”so to speak, compared to his contemporaries. But Adams apparently sensed something different about what O’Sullivan had done for the survey parties and the term “surrealism” became a handy trope to connote the strong and striking difference between these prints on albumen paper and those by William Bell or William Henry Jackson. But to call any of the photographers of the Western surveys “art” photographers would be incorrect. These were professional photographers, hired hands, following instructions, but they had apparently incorporated, if only through a cultural and visual osmosis, the language of landscape painting and the artifices, such as making sure there is a repoussoir in the foreground and a recession into a vast expanse, all framed in a proper Claudian structure, then three hundred years old. Even though photography was supposedly a record of the real, the observed, the devices used by painters to suggest an illusion of depth, were repeated by the landscape photographers who used the known and the familiar to situate the viewer, even, as in the Western views, the scenes were so unfamiliar they bordered on the “surreal.” The extent to which O’Sullivan deviated from the established norm, ignoring all landscape conventions, was noticeable in the late 1930s but it was the work of re-photographer Rick Dingus forty years later that demonstrated the originality of the work of Timothy O’Sullivan.

Headed by Mark Klett, who was working with protohistorian Ellen Manchester, and sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts and the Polaroid Corporation, the Rephotographic Survey Project was active between 1977 and 1979. JoAnn Verburg was the research coordinator who led the photographers, Rick Dingus and Gordon Bushaw to the exact locations–site, time of day, time of year–where nineteenth century photographers, William Henry Jackson, John K. Hillers, Andrew J. Russell, and Timothy O’Sullivan, once stood photographing the West. On the surface, the Rephotographic Survey Project was a simple retracing of the steps of the originators of Western photography to see how the land had changed, had become overgrown by tourism and otherwise modernized or not, but for a photographer, rephotographing these sites was a chance to analyze the decisions made by their precursors. Carleton Watkins, it is well known, established conventional “views” or the best vantage points for the visitor to Yosemite, but the survey photographers were recording a process of scientific investigation–O’Sullivan’s brief–or a period of technological conquest–the work of A. J. Russell, and it was far from certain that their images would ever find their way to a broad public audience. The intended audience was corporate and political and the often pedestrian language of the pictures reflects that expectation on the part of the employers that the images should be descriptive accompaniments to a more precise discussion provided by proper scientists.

Rick Dingus found that O’Sullivan seemed to be working under a different set of instructions, and in doing so he opened up a new discourse on Timothy O’Sullivan, seemingly adding to the thesis of Ansel Adams and Beaumont Newhall–that Timothy O’Sullivan was a photographic formalist, an abstractionist, avant la lettre. But other perspectives on the photographer would emerge over the ensuing decades. It is these “pure” landscape photographs that are of most interest to historians. But how “pure” are these landscapes by Timothy O’Sullivan?

In his 1994 article, “Territorial Photography,” Joel Snyder noted that the standard and established use of photographs as “integumental likeness–as passive recordings of preexisting sights.” This passivity and mirroring, not just of what could be seen but of what the audience expected to see, responded, Snyder suggested to the expanding interest in documentary photography. The author related how photographers of the West could find an audience to view and to purchase their views, indicating that these operators were aware of the commercial need to please the customers. But Snyder’s point was more subtle than mere horizon of expectations, he was suggesting that photographs were intended to respond to and to create a collective way of seeing, something he called “distributed vision” or “disinterested” seeing that transcended the individual. These conventions of viewing photographs of the West, based on paintings of the past, were augmented by implied promises of new beginnings in a supposedly virgin land, full of possibilities and ripe for exploitation.

But Timothy O’Sullivan produced a body of counter-images, termed by Synder, as “contrainvitational,” expressing the inherent “hostility” of desperate deserts and high hard rocks of the West. If Snyder is correct, we might assume that because his photographs were intended for a more limited audience, O’Sullivan seized the opportunity to photograph the West in a fashion that foregrounded the unknown. This land was, as Snyder put it, “terra incognito, as a world different from ours, unfamiliar, inhospitable, and terrifying.” Snyder concluded: “O’Sullivan’s photographs, then, are not to be understood as scientific documents, but as something like pictorialized ‘No Trespassing’ signs.” Was it the intention of O’Sullivan to create a vision of forbidden places, too dangerous for the tourist, much less the aspiring settler? We know, as Snyder points out that O’Sullivan, as he had done during the Civil War, manipulated the photographic outcome for dramatic effect, highlighting a stray sand dune to suggest an engulfing desert, but how do his actions–carried out in the midst of scientific exhibitions–square with the idea of a truthful survey of unmapped territory?

Desert Sand Hills near the Sink of Carson, Nevada (1867)

The next post will continue to examine the debate around the intentions of Timothy O’Sullivan and the interpretations of his oeuvre.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.


Early Utah Photographs by Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson (Winter 2016)

These Timothy O’Sullivan photographs were taken in 1869 during the 40th Parallel Survey that took place between 1867-1872. The expedition that surveyed northern Utah in 1869 was under the command of Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys and U.S. Geologist Clarence King. Among O’Sullivan’s photos include images of various points in the Wasatch and the Uinta Mountains, including King’s Peak, as well as of Ogden, Salt Lake City, and Promontory Summit. King’s Peak, the highest peak in Utah, is named for Clarence King, while the highest point in Arizona is named for Andrew Humphreys.

Born in Ireland, O’Sullivan worked for Matthew Brady in New York as a teenager just before the outbreak of the Civil War. Beginning in 1862, he joined Matthew Brady’s team of photographers, and late that same year he joined Alexander Gardner’s photographic team, ultimately publishing forty-four photographs, some of which are quite famous, including “Harvest of Death” depicting dead confederate soldiers in the field at Gettysburg and “Dead Confederate Sharpshooter at Foot of Little Round Top.”

O’Sullivan established a new career as a photographer of the natural beauty of he west and several Native-Americans, which was enhanced significantly by joining the 40th Parallel Survey. In 1882, O’Sullivan died of tuberculosis in Staten Island, NY at the age of 42.

We also publish a few photographs by William Henry Jackson, an O’Sullivan contemporary. Jackson accompanied Ferdinand Hayden on his geologic surveys of the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains in 1870 and 1871. His landscape photographs introduced the public to the scenery and grandeur of the American West and were instrumental in convincing Congress to designate Yellowstone National Park in 1872. Jackson died in 1942 at the age of 99 years.

Corinne, Utah. William Henry Jackson Hayden expedition in camp, 1872. William Henry Jackson First camp of the Hayden survey at Ogden, Utah. William Henry Jackson Salt Lake City, 1869. William Henry Jackson Wasatch Mountains near Ogden, Utah. William Henry Jackson American Fork Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mouth of American Fork Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mouth of American Fork Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Austin, NV – Silver Mining town. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Bear River in the Uinta Mountains. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Big Cottonwood Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Big Cottonwood Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Bridal Veil Falls in Provo Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Christmas Meadows in the Uintas. Timothy H. O’Sullivan City of Rocks in northwest Utah. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Cottonwood Lake. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Devil’s Gate near Mouth of Weber Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Devil’s Gate near Mouth of Weber Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Devil’s Slide in Weber Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Devil’s Slide. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mouth of Echo Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Overlook at Flaming Gorge in northeastern Utah. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Flaming Gorge in northeastern Utah. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Lake Jan. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Lake Lall near Mt. Agassiz in the Uintas. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Lake Lall in the Uintas. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mouth of Echo Canyon. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mt. Agassiz in the Uintas. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mt. Agassiz in the Uintas. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mt. Ogden and Taylor’s Canyon near Ogden, Utah. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mt. Olympus from the west near Salt Lake City. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Mt. Olympus. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Near Summit of Lone Peak in Salt Lake County. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Ben Lomond and Lewis Peak looking north from Ogden. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Salt Lake City Panorama Shot #1. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Salt Lake City Panorama Shot #2. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Summit of Lone Peak. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Camp of the 40th Parallel Survey near Salt Lake City. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Witches’ Rocks near Henifer. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Witches’ Rocks near Henifer. Timothy H. O’Sullivan Driving of the Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, 1869. Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Timothy O’Sullivan: Civil War Photographer

Timothy O’Sullivan was born in 1840 and was a photographer. Born in Ireland, his parents emigrated to the United States in 1842. O’Sullivan died of tuberculosis at the age of 42 and left behind some incredible photographs during the Civil war and the expansion westward after the war.

O’Sullivan discovered this inscription that was carved in sandstone in 1726. The inscription was found in New Mexico and it has been turned into the El Morro National Monument.

Miners O’Sullivan photographed while they worked

In 1867, he went to Virginia City, Nevada to document the mining procedures of the men of the Savage, the Gould, and the Curry mines on the Comstock Lode. The men worked 900 feet under ground and O’Sullivan photographed them in tunnels, shafts, and lifts.

When the Civil War ended, O’Sullivan became the official photographer for the United States Geological Exploration of the 40th Parallel from 1867 to 1869. He was tasked to take photographs of the west that would lure Americans to settle there. He created records of prehistoric ruins, Native American weavers and pueblo villages.

Old Mission Church. Zuni Pueblo, new Mexico. 1873

O’Sullivan was an apprentice to the photography pioneer, Matthew Brady. O’Sullivan enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and took photographs in his spare time.

Pyramid Lake, Nevada – 1867.

Confederate Sharpshooter seen dead in the trenches

After joining a surveying team in Panama to assess the difficulty of digging a canal in the isthmus, O’Sullivan returned to photograph the American West, jointing Lt. George Wheeler’s survey team. After facing near-starvation when his survey boat capsized on the Colorado River, O’Sullivan accepted a post with the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C.

May 24, 1864 – The 50th New York Engineers build a road along the southern bank of the North Anna River near Jericho Mills, Virginia.

When the Civil War ended, O’Sullivan became the official photographer for the Unite Boat crew of the “Picture” at Diamond Creek. Photo shows photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, fourth from left, with fellow members of the Wheeler survey and Native Americans, following ascent of the Colorado River through the Black Canyon in 1871.

July 1863, O’Sullivan captured the famous scene from the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. The photograph shows the battlefield riddled with bodies from both sides, the Union and the Confederates.

1862 – African Americans prepare to begin working the cotton gin on Smith’s plantation. Port Royal Island, South Carolina.

When O’Sullivan was discharged from the army in 1862, he rejoined his former teacher, Matthew Brady. Later that year he began following Major General John Pope and his Northern Virginia Campaign. O’Sullivan joined Alexander Gardner and published 44 photographs in Gardener’s “Photographic Sketch Book of the War.”

1864 – Captured Confederate camp located near Petersburg, Virginia.


Borrowing from Landscape Painting

Although clearly a documentary image of the scene, the photograph also employs many of the artistic conventions of landscape painting. The narrowly focused composition does not allow the viewer&rsquos eye to wander through the landscape. In fact, our vision in confined solely to the rock and the ruins, without the standard light source found in most landscape painting. However, light plays an obvious role in the play of light and dark on the rock walls. The ruins themselves, which suggest the passage of time, are so small as to emphasize the traditional Romantic interest in man&rsquos insignificance when confronted with the immensity of nature.


Photo Gallery

– all Photos courtesy Library of Congress –

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Watch the video: The Photography of Timothy OSullivan (May 2022).