The Photographic Memories of Timothy O’Sullivan
Recently, I was watching an episode of “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman”. Hey, I’ve always been very upfront about my television consumption. I figure there’s no telling when inspiration will strike, but it seemed more likely that inspiration would strike during a “Dr. Quinn” than during an episode of “The Bachelor”. I was right. Inspiration did strike! (Had I watched “The Bachelor,” I have no doubt that this would be a very different blog post.)
You see, I watched the episode where Kenny Rogers played a photographer who was traveling across the West taking exquisite portraits. He took pictures of Dr. Quinn. Shocker! She came off looking like an Old West Bond Girl! Of course, being a show about a lady doctor, there had to be some medical drama. Sadly, Kenny Rogers was going blind due to uncontrolled diabetes. Unlike Wilford Brimley, he had diabetes and it did rule his life. But I digress…
Anyway, I started thinking about the real photographers of the Civil War era. I thought about writing a post on Mathew Brady, but that seemed too obvious of a choice. So, I decided to write about Timothy O’Sullivan. Although he was one of the most famous photographers of the 19th century, capturing images from the Civil War and the Old West, he never achieved the status he deserved.
A study of the life of Timothy H. O’Sullivan raises as many questions as it offers answers. He’s a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery, which is inside an enigma. (Oh, sure, that’s how Winston Churchill described Russia, but it’s most fitting of O’Sullivan too.) Here’s what we know:
O’Sullivan was born in 1840. That made him one year younger than the art of photography!
He might have been born in Ireland. Or, perhaps, he was born in the New York. But, he was probably born in Ireland. Unless, of course, he wasn’t. At any rate, his parents were Irish-born. It is believed that little Timothy was two when the family emigrated. Likely, he told people he was born in New York because there was little glory in being an immigrant.
It is believed that O’Sullivan worked for Mathew Brady in his New York studio, as a teenager.
It is an established fact that O’Sullivan traveled to Washington D.C. to work with Alexander Gardner, who managed Mathew Brady’s D.C. studio.
O’Sullivan may have ended his working relationship with Mathew Brady due to not receiving proper credit for his work.
He may have been commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Union Army in 1861. Then again, maybe he wasn’t! We do know he photographed the Civil War. O’Sullivan’s photographs from the Battle of Gettysburg helped him to gain recognition as a photographer. Forty-four of his photos were published in Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War. While most photographers were capturing images of soldiers at posing by trees and tents, O’Sullivan was capturing the bitter realities of war.
Following the war, O’Sullivan was the official photographer for three U.S. government survey expeditions: a survey of the 40th Parallel, one of the Isthmus of Panama and the Geological Surveys West of the 100th Meridian.
He died of tuberculosis in January 1882. He was likely 41-years-old, but we don’t know his actual date of birth.
While piecing together a bio of an underappreciated photographer can be interesting, the only things that should really matter to us are his photographs (Just click on the images above to open an enlarged slide show!) They can be described in one word: BREATHTAKING! Whether looking at scenes from a battlefield or landscape shots, I find myself letting out a little gasp. His photographs captured the heart and soul of a bygone era.
O’Sullivan used a box camera and traveled with a horse drawn darkroom that allowed him to develop his own photographs. (Exactly like Kenny Rogers did on “Dr. Quinn”. I’m just saying! There is a method to my madness.) While traveling with a team of surveyors, scientists, military men and artists, he photographed sites that had never before been captured. And he did it in a way that few photographers of that time would have dared. Other photographers of the day were taking, what I would call “Wish you were here” postcard cards. O’Sullivan was capturing the bigness of the West—the striations of rock outcroppings, rushing waterfalls, the stillness of domed rocks in a lake, and desolate areas that appear as big as all outdoors.
While the surveyors were busy doing their own thing, O’Sullivan took the opportunity to photograph Native Americans. The sepia images of villages and tribespeople show a deep respect on the part of the photographer. In a sense, they say as much about Timothy O’Sullivan as they do about the subjects.
O’Sullivan, Who Art Thou?
In 2010, The Smithsonian American Art Museum presented an exhibition of his photographs eititled Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan. The exhibition, which was collaboration between The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress, displayed more than 120 of O’Sullivan’s photographs. More than any other photographer of the time period, O’Sullivan is credited as influencing the art of modern landscape photography. So, how is it that most people still haven’t heard of Timothy O’Sullivan?
Unlike other photographers of the time, O’Sullivan didn’t live long enough to promote his work. His biography is pieced together because he didn’t have the benefit of sharing his life story with others. In a way, it seems fitting that he remains somewhat of a mystery. Looking at his photographs, I always feel as if I’m being let in on a secret—a secret that seems haunting and reverent. I hope you feel the same way. And, please know that this is one secret that is okay to tell!
Take a moment to watch this moving video about Timothy O’Sullivan and his work, from The Smithsonian.
Happy Trails, y’all!