Timothy H. O'Sullivan

(1840 - 1882) American (possibly b. Ireland)


Little is known about the early years of Timothy O'Sullivan's life, except that he was probably born in Ireland and grew up on Staten Island. By 1860 he was working as an "operator" in Mathew Brady's photographic studio in New York, and later he was employed by Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C. Both employers engaged him to document the battlefields of the Civil War, and he produced many moving depictions of the aftermaths of Bull Run, Gettysburg, and Appomattox. His keen observation of the American scene continued after the war, when he joined Clarence King's U.S. Government Fortieth Parallel Survey documenting the areas west of the Mississippi River. Despite the difficulties of the wet-plate collodion process, which required him to carry large-format camera, glass plates, and darkroom equipment and chemicals through harsh terrain, O'Sullivan produced astounding photographs of the western landscape. In addition to these images, he made some of the first photographs of mine interiors using a magnesium flash. His work on the expedition recommended him for several future trips, including the 1869 Darien Survey, of the area that was to become the Panama Canal, and George M. Wheeler's Geological Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian in California, Nevada, and Arizona in 1871-75; he led his own expeditions to the Southwest in 1873 and 1875 to document Native Americans. O'Sullivan returned east in 1875, and served as the chief photographer for the Department of the Treasury from 1880 until his death.
Timothy O'Sullivan's photographs are distinctive among similar work by other nineteenth-century eastern landscape photographers. Not only do they document the features and terrain of previously uncharted areas of the West, but also they leave the viewer with a strong impression of the vastness, intimidating scale, and overwhelming force of such landscape. O'Sullivan revealed the West as a beautiful, breathtaking environment and unforgiving, difficult adventure.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 224.

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