American, Born Ireland, (1840-1882)
Biography | Bibliography
“Relatively little is known about the life of Timothy O’Sullivan, who made some of the most memorable photographs of the Civil War and the American West. Before the war he worked at Mathew Brady’s New York gallery, then at Brady’s Washington D.C., gallery under Alexander Gardner. During the Civil War he photographed war scenes – first for Brady, then for Gardner – at Bull Run, Gettysburg, Appomattox, and elsewhere. Though O’Sullivan, like other Civil War photographers, generally worked after battles had taken place, he twice had his camera hit by shell fragments.
From 1867 to 1875 he accompanied various U.S government expeditionary surveys, primarily in western America but also at the site of the proposed Panama Canal. On his expeditions O’Sullivan experienced the routine rigors of a photographer using wet-collodion plates in the desert: temperatures high enough to boil the chemical solutions, swarms of mosquitoes thick enough to extinguish candles, near starvation when boats carrying supplies capsized, and negatives ruined by accidents during their transportation. Little is known of him after 1875, when he returned from his last expedition suffering from the tuberculosis that eventually took his life. He died not long after his 1880 appointment as chief photographer for the U.S. Treasury Department.
In his Civil War photographs O’Sullivan developed the style that he perfected in his expeditionary photographs. His mature work appears distinctly modern, combining a cool objectivity with an understated use of design and composition. He never romanticized his landscapes (for example, by choosing dramatic camera angles), but he could exploit the aesthetic possibilities in the barren of landscape. He used blank, white skies as backgrounds against which he traced the jagged lines of rocky hilltops, and in many of his images the sky becomes a powerful and independent shape itself. Weston Naef wrote: “O’Sullivan’s views are among the least picturesque of all western landscape photographers… The modernity his images hold for us… derives from the austerity of his preferred subjects and the intense esthetic consciousness of his vision”(Naef and Wood, Era, pp. 135-136).”1
1From Lee D. Witkin, and Barbara London, Selected Photographers: A Collector’s Compendium, The Photograph Collector’s Guide, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1979, 205.
Keith Davis, Jane Aspinwall, Marc Wilson, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Origins of American Photography From Daguerreotype to Dry-Plate, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1839-1885.
Rick Dingus, The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O’Sullivan, Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1982.
James D. Horan, Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer, Prineville, OR: Bonanza Books, 1966.
Joel Snyder, American Frontiers: The Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, 1867-1874, New York: Aperture, 1981.