Timothy O’Sullivan

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (c. 1840 – 1882) was a photographer widely known for his work related to the American Civil War and the Western United States.

Source: Based on Wikipedia

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American Civil War

O’Sullivan was born in Ireland and came to New York City two years later with his parents. As a teenager, he was employed by Mathew Brady. When the Civil War began in early 1861, he was commissioned a first lieutenant in the Union Army (Joel Snyder, O’Sullivan’s biographer could find no proof of this claim in Army records) and, over the next year, was present at Beaufort, Port Royal, Fort Walker, and Fort Pulaski. There is no record of him fighting. He most likely did civilian’s work for the army such as surveying, and he took photographs in his spare time.

After being honorably discharged, he rejoined Brady’s team. In July 1862, O’Sullivan followed the campaign of Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Northern Virginia Campaign. By joining Alexander Gardner’s studio, he had his forty-four photographs published in the first Civil War photographs collection, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. In July 1863, he created his most famous photograph, “The Harvest of Death,” depicting dead soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg.

He took many other photographs documenting the battle, including “Dead Confederate sharpshooter at foot of Little Round Top”, “Field where General Reynolds fell”, “View in wheatfield opposite our extreme left”,“Confederate dead gathered for burial at the southwestern edge of the Rose woods”, “Bodies of Federal soldiers near the McPherson woods”, “Slaughter pen”, and others.

In 1864, following Gen. Ulysses S. Grant‘s trail, he photographed the Siege of Petersburg before briefly heading to North Carolina to document the siege of Fort Fisher. That brought him to the Appomattox Court House, the site of Robert E. Lee‘s surrender in April 1865.

Western United States

From 1867 to 1869, he was official photographer on the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel under Clarence King.  In so doing, he became one of the pioneers in the field of geophotography. Until the mid 1860s, the army carried out most of the mapping and geological survey work into the country’s uncharted ‘interior’. (That is, it was uncharted and unknown to non-Native Americans.) O’Sullivan was engaged by Clarence King, who successfully argued for geological surveys to be carried out by better-trained professionals. O’Sullivan’s actual job description as the expedition photographer was vague. He was not required to make images for precise references (a team of draftsmen were employed for that task), nor were pictures needed to seduce would-be patrons to fund the expeditions, since enough money had already been secured in advance (Mitchell (ed.), 2002, p.191). King simply required O’Sullivan to take photographs that would “give a sense of the area” (ibid p.1) – supposedly to attract settlers.

O’Sullivan documented the expeditions of King and George Wheeler from 1867 to 1874, primarily around the Great Basin region (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah).The expedition began at Virginia City, Nevada, where he photographed the mines, and worked eastward. O’Sullivan’s pictures were among the first to record the prehistoric ruins,Navajo weavers, and pueblo villages of the Southwest.

O’Sullivan’s work is recognised and celebrated for being distinct from the photography of his contemporaries, for resisting pictorial traditions and for representing the land as alien, inhospitable and unwelcoming. The actual topography of the land that O’Sullivan surveyed aside, it is unsurprising that his photographs of the Great Basin are difficult for the viewer to engage with. Without the focus that a more defined brief might have provided, and more importantly, working in demanding environments for months at a time, perhaps the landscape claimed O’Sullivan’s work as its own. Perhaps some of the trauma of the scenes he witnessed at Gettysburg and elsewhere was projected onto the landscape of the Great Basin, which after all was a kind of blank canvas in terms of its ideological potential. O’Sullivan’s expedition photographs remain, whether intended or not, distinctly expressive documents of the territory, and of contemporaneous attitudes towards them. (Alexander 2013 p55)

In 1870 he joined a survey team in Panama to survey for a canal across the isthmus. From 1871 to 1874 he returned to the southwestern United States to join Lt. George M. Wheeler’s survey west of the 100th meridian west. He faced starvation on the Colorado River when some of the expedition’s boats capsized; few of the 300 negatives he took survived the trip back East.

He spent the last years of his short life in Washington, D.C., as official photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Treasury Department. O’Sullivan died in Staten Island of tuberculosis at age 42.