Timothy O'Sullivan: early frontier photographer
Timothy O'Sullivan, one of the American frontier's most important photographers, wasn't just an artistic hybrid of Matthew Brady and Ansel Adams. He had a little Kit Carson in him as well.
You look at his haunting images of Civil War battlefields and if you know a thing or two about photography you probably think, Matthew Brady. Or you happen upon his stunning monochrome landscapes of the American West and figure, Ansel Adams.
In fact, Timothy O'Sullivan, one of the American frontier's most important photographers, wasn't just an artistic hybrid of those giants of early photography; he had a little Kit Carson in him as well.
Born in 1840, most likely in Ireland, and immigrating to America two years later, the Staten Islander became an apprentice photographer in Matthew Brady's acclaimed studio in the mid-1850s. Quickly developing a reputation for technical wizardry — photography has always been as much about technology as art — O'Sullivan helped to invent the idea of photojournalism, hauling the clunky "wet plate" equipment of the day to Civil War battles from Bull Run to Appomattox. Because Brady often failed to credit the work of subordinates, many wrongly assume that photos such as O'Sullivan's widely recognized A Harvest of Death taken of Union dead at the Battle of Gettysburg are Brady's (although by the time O'Sullivan took the famous shot, he was employed by the studio of Alexander Gardner).
According to Ken Burns (quoted in the Tucson Weekly in 2003), who used O'Sullivan's images extensively in his acclaimed Civil War documentary series, "Even people who don't know anything about O'Sullivan know his Civil War photos."
Unable to face the tedium of studio work after his war exploits, the restless O'Sullivan traveled west in 1867 with Clarence King's perilous geological survey of the 40th parallel and became one of the era's most important U.S. government expedition photographers. With the Wheeler Expedition of 1871, he commanded a flat-bottomed boat christened The Picture up the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
Often employing a mule team to drag his darkroom through mountains and canyons, and battling everything from forced marches through Death Valley to a boat wreck in the Truckee River in which he lost $300 in gold and nearly drowned, O'Sullivan brought back stark images to Washington, D.C., that helped create in the minds of Americans an artistic and geographic vision of Manifest Destiny. His photos of the looming rock formations in Arizona's Canyon de Chelly — O'Sullivan typically portrayed humans as tiny figures struggling against massive landscapes — influenced photographers for decades to follow, including Ansel Adams.
His pictures of Native Americans were decades ahead of their time. Eschewing the predominant delegation-style portraiture of Native Americans in ceremonial dress, O'Sullivan employed the realism he'd mastered on Civil War battlegrounds to depict Apaches and Navajos completely without romantic overtones. He portrayed his subjects as they appeared in everyday life, sometimes just standing around wearing blue jeans or ragged clothes.
Though some biographies describe O'Sullivan as a tough, energetic, and boastful man, others portray him as shy and serious. Because he left few writings, little is known about his personality apart from those details that might be inferred from his work. Along with his wife, Laura, O'Sullivan was stricken with tuberculosis in 1880. Laura died in October 1881. O'Sullivan followed her to the grave in January 1882 at age 41, a flashing spirit as important and ephemeral as the frontier era he captured so memorably.