Framing the Wild West – the landscape photography of Timothy H OSullivan
One of the great photographic pioneers of the nineteenth century was Irish born Timothy H. O’Sullivan. Often referred to as America’s forgotten photographer, this private man created a remarkable and varied body of work, from the brutal battlefields of the American Civil War to the arid landscapes of the western wilderness. As such, he was one of the earliest landscape photographers, his technical and artistic achievements establishing a justified reputation as pioneering artist in the new medium of photography.
The remarkable fact that so much of O’Sullivan’s work survives and is held in the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institute in the United States, contrasts with the sparse details of his short life. A great effort to learn more about him was undertaken when the Smithsonian and Library of Congress joined forces to put together a collection of O’Sullivan’s work on the American west. It seemed that the harder the researchers looked the less they found and the more questions they had.
What is certain is that O’Sullivan was born to Jeremiah and Anne O’Sullivan in 1840 and went to the United States two years later on an emigrant famine ship. The young family settled in Staten Island in New York, where Timothy grew up. As a teenager, he was taken on as an apprentice to Matthew Brady, a fellow Irishman, who had a successful gallery and studio in the emerging art and science of photography. When the American Civil war broke out in 1861, Brady had just expanded his venture to Washington and was perfectly placed to send photographers to document the unfolding events in and around the battlefields of Virginia and Maryland. The 21-year-old O’Sullivan and a Scot named Alexander Gardner loaded their cameras and darkroom on to horse-drawn wagons and headed west. In July of that year, an overconfident Union Army received a bloody baptism of fire at Manassas, Virginia and O’Sullivan recorded the aftermath of a stunning Confederate victory. Years later, he lamented his failure to fully capture the Battle of Bull Run “close up” – a rebel artillery shell, O’Sullivan explained, had blown away one of his cameras.
O’Sullivan and Gardner were to become the first war photographers, bringing the horror of the battlefield to the front pages of a shocked American public. If anything, Timothy O’Sullivan is best known for this work and several of his plates are most iconic images of this grim time in U.S. history. In particular, the image of bodies strewn across a battlefield, titled ‘A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, July 1863’ remains a stark and grim record of the reality of war. From a photographic perspective, this work was not merely documentary, O’Sullivan demonstrating a rare compositional talent in constructing his images and leading the viewer on a journey. In the above image, both the foreground and background elements are out of focus, concentrating the eye on the uncomfortable reality of the war dead. It was this honesty of vision coupled with technical expertise and an ability to work in extremely challenging environments that would lead to his later work in expeditions to explore the west.
Gardner and O’Sullivan had a falling out with Brady, not for business or money reasons, but because Brady insisted on crediting the work collectively to his studio and not to the photographers individually. Given that they were literally putting their lives on the line, it is understandable this was a reason for them to part company. Gardner set up his own studio and O’Sullivan continued his work on the civil war in the employ of his colleague. Their co-operation yielded a remarkable and now rare book of images, ‘Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War’, and it is this work that shows the photographers individual images, all of which are individually captioned and credited. O’Sullivan is credited with 44 of the 100 works published in this two volume work.
After the war, where O’Sullivan obviously proved himself in the field, an opportunity to join two survey expeditions to the American west was a welcome reprieve from the horrors of the Civil War. The first of these surveys was undertaken between 1867 and 1869 and was led by Clarence King. The expedition explored a swath of wilderness 100 miles wide, stretching along the 40th Parallel between the Sierra and the Rocky Mountains. The second survey expedition under George Wheeler, covered a vast area of the American Southwest between 1871 and 1874.
It is the landscape images from these expeditions that have endured and are remarkable to view, even today. The collaboration between the Smithsonian and Library of Congress brought together both their individual catalogues to create a remarkable portfolio. This project culminated in an exhibition of the curated work and the publication a book, ‘Framing the West’, in 2010. Given that he was the first photographer to visit most of these wild places and had no previous work to draw from – the resulting catalogue of images are wonderfully crafted and testament to great talent.
O’Sullivan once again shows a superb eye for composition and detail in capturing the deserts and mountains of the American southwest. The images have a haunting reality in capturing the light, land and native people of the largely empty wide open spaces of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. That the work has survived and is in such good condition is something that will pass down the generations as an enduring record and artistic representation of the wild west. It is all the more remarkable to have survived, given that the work was largely forgotten until its rediscovery by the great landscape photographer Ansel Adams in the 1930’s. Adams credits O’Sullivan as one of his earliest and greatest influences, a fine testament indeed from one of the most respected photographic artists of the 20th century.
His personal life is a different story, however. Having survived being a front-line war photographer – including the aforementioned occasion when his camera and wagon were struck by an artillery shell – his life outside of this and the survey expeditions was perilous. This is where so little is known of his life, only that is was unsettled and carried its own tale of tragedy. On leave from the West in 1873, O’Sullivan married Laura Virginia Pywell, the daughter of an English-born livery stable operator in Washington, D.C. Timothy likely met his future wife through her brother William R. Pywell, also a Civil War photographer whose work was also represented in Gardner’s ‘Photographic Sketch Book of the War’. In addition to marrying outside his ethnic background, O’Sullivan was also abandoning whatever bonds remained to his Catholic upbringing – the marriage being officiated by Reverend David Jutten, a Protestant Minister in Washington, D.C.’s East Street Baptist Church.
After his final return from the West, in late 1874, O’Sullivan was employed printing the negatives from his survey work. His brief career at the Treasury Department, from 1880-1881, was abruptly terminated in March 1881 by the onset tuberculosis. While Timothy was convalescing at his parents’ home on Staten Island, his wife Laura succumbed to the same disease on October 18th, 1881 in Washington, D.C. She was 31.
Timothy returned to Washington for the funeral and buried his wife alongside the couple’s only child, a son stillborn in 1876, in the Pywell family plot in Rock Creek Cemetery. In late December, he returned to Staten Island and was placed under a doctor’s care. Timothy died at his parents’ home, aged 42, on January 14th, 1882.
The legacy of Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s work, both of the American civil war and of the wide open landscapes of the southwest is enduring. His body of work and life story were very much on my mind during a trip to photograph the American Southwest in early 2017. Given the iconic work of O’Sullivan and Adams and the many photographers since then, I had longed to see these landscapes for many years. As I set up for a sunrise shot in the Navajo lands after an early hike, my small backpack of equipment a far cry from O’Sullivan’s darkroom wagon, pulled by four mules, 150 years before.
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