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Timothy O'Sullivan:Civil War Photographs
Some of Timothy O’ Sullivan’s Civil War photos were erroneously attributed to Mathew Brady. It might be because he worked for Brady and pictures often got credited to the studio. O’Sullivan did do exceptional pictures of the Civil War. He also did great work on Western America photography. He and Mathew Brady were friends and he studied Brady’s Civil War images.
Born in 1840 Sullivan died in 1882. He was a well-known Civil War photographer as well as a Western United States photographer. He started working for Brady as a teenager. When the Civil War started he went into the Union army with the rank of First Lieutenant and fought in several battles. After the war he returned to work for Brady.
Imagine if you will, what it was like to take Civil War pictures. It is not like you do in taking photos with you digital camera, which you might slip into you pocket and later download the pictures to your computer. Maybe to a laptop.
What a photographer like O’Sullivan had to do was bring along a heavy 8 x 10 inch camera and the rest of the equipment needed. “He lugged his cumbersome camera and equipment…from one battlefield to and other,” Horan tell us in his book, Sullivan America’s Forgotten Photographer. ”He followed the Army of the Potomac, bouncing along the rutted roads in his traveling studio, setting his negatives in the canvas darkroom that reeked of chemicals,”
Imagine again, heavy cumbersome equipment, developing breakable glass plates. And yet, according to Horan, O’Sullivan took many Civil War photos ”more revealing, more laden with character and simple brute horror of war than some…polished prints…produced in World War II,” Horan continues.
The photo process at that time was wet plate technique. He had to make his own plate in the field just before exposing it, and then develop it right away in a portable dark room.
Church of San Miquel
After the war he continued to lug his equipment and take photos from Death Valley to Virginia City. During the late 1860’s and early 1870’s he was official photographer for the government geographical surveys.
Who was Timothy O’Sullivan?
An article from the University of Virginia American studies dept reveals an interest in the photographer as an artist and to his elusive personality. He was, they note, “one of the first people to call himself a photographer.” He was “A pioneer of the medium in its infancy, he was among the first to take photography out of the portrait studios and into the field.” Out of thousands of photos of the Civil War and the frontier, they note, his have often “been singled out as some of the most sensitive, powerful and enduring.”
In the West “O’Sullivan explored and photographed California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho as a member of two different expeditions.” According to the University of Virginia article. With another group he went to Panama.
James D. Horan mentions that O’sullivan was shy. That may have been a reason that not too much is known about him. We know that he was born in Ireland, served in the Civil War. We also know that he worked for Mathew Brady and later with Alexander Gardner, who had left Brady earlier. But “…there is little to shed light on the meaning of his work…His photographs must speak for themselves,” Virginia University paper.
O’Sullivan worked in two photographic genres of the nineteenth century which are:” confined to a realistic style by the conventions and limitations or the medium…” the Virginia University article says. Later it says that the audience. “…was not prepared to think of war views as ‘subjective impressions’ or as ‘personal interpretations…”
Similarly with western photography at that time there was a fundamental difference from most photography of that time or with today’s photography. “…photographs within both genres…are overwhelmingly similar in appearance and subject matter.” Yet there is something that makes O’Sullivan’s pictures stand out. Timothy Sweet is quoted as “…if the Civil War and Frontier photographers did not think of themselves as artists, O’Sullivan, at least, behaved as one.”
Perhaps, as someone noted, some photographers such as O’Sullivan thought of themselves as storytellers. It does seem that he and some other photographers do tell the story of not only The Civil War but also war in general with his Civil War photographs. With his pictures of the Civil War he does tell the story. Much the same is true of his western photos. Whatever the case, to many people O’Sullivan's Civil War photos stood out. The same is true of his western images.
Sources: Timothy Sullivan America’s Forgotten Photographer by James D. Horan copyright 1996 by James D. Horan
University of Virginia American Studies http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma99/paul/tim/recovery.html
Copyright 2011 Don Hoglund
Timothy O'Sullivan's photos construct American History
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund