Timothy H. O'Sullivan




Timothy H. O'Sullivan


American, Born Ireland, 1840-1882

Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Timothy H. O'Sullivan was perhaps the best of the Civil War photographers, and he was better still when he went west after the War as photographer for the government explorations of the Fortieth Parallel (1867-1869) and the One Hundredth Meridian (1871, 1873-1874).

Perhaps the War had prepared O'Sullivan for the conditions of work, and of survival, that he met in the West: the extreme heat and cold, dangerous water to travel on, or no water at all, mosquitoes that drove men half crazy, hostile or treacherous Indians, immense distances, and the intermittent suspicion that one might be hopelessly lost.


Timothy H. O'Sullivan

There was also frequent failure.
On the 1871 expedition, O'Sullivan made about three hundred negatives that were good enough to keep. (Mediocre pictures were scraped from the plates to save the glass for another attempt.) Almost all of those he had kept were destroyed when several of the expedition's boats capsized in the Colorado River.




Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Under such circumstances it would not seem that artistic talent was the first requirement of a photographer, but perhaps the best ones met the hardships successfully because they loved picture-making.

About his work in the Humboldt Sink, O'Sullivan said: "Viewing there was as pleasant work as could be desired; the only drawback was an unlimited number of the most voracious and particularly poisonous mosquitoes that we met with during our entire trip. Add to this the ... frequent attacks of that most enervating of all fevers, known as the 'mountain ail,' and you will see why we did not work up more of that country.... Which of the two should be considered as the most unbearable it is impossible to state."


Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Particularly in his landscape work, O'Sullivan had a wonderfully original eye. His intuitively inventive approach to the formal problems of photography can be seen in the way he handled his skies. The wet plates of the day were sensitive only to blue light; sky areas were thus automatically overexposed, and rendered as blank white. Photogrphers who insisted on a conventional spatial rendering of the sky solved the problem by printing in clouds from a separate negative.

O'Sullivan, on the other hand, accepted the white sky and used it as a shape, enclosed in tension between the picture's visual horizen and the edges of the plate.

His landscapes are as precisely and as economically composed as a good masonry wall. It is as though every square inch of the precious glass plate, carried so far at so great an effort, had to be justified completely.

from "Looking at Photographs" by John Szarkowski





Timothy H. O'Sullivan / recommended books
Timothy H. O'Sullivan: The King Survey Photographs (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)

This handsome and enlightening book aims to enrich and enlarge our understanding of O'Sullivan's pivotal body of western photographs by emphasizing the idea of context. The volume also includes an essential catalogue raisonne of O'Sullivan's King Survey work.



Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O'Sullivan

The first major publication on O'Sullivan in more than thirty years, Framing the West offers a new aesthetic and formal interpretation of O'Sullivan's photographs and assesses his influence on the larger photographic canon. The book features previously unpublished and rarely seen images and serves as a field guide for OfSullivanfs original prints, presenting them for the first time in sequence with the chronology of their production.


Timothy O'Sullivan: America's Forgotten Photographer

Brings together a biographical profile and more than four hundred of O'Sullivan's photographs.





Timothy H. O'Sullivan quotes
  • (On his work in the Humboldt Sink) Viewing there was as pleasant work as could be desired; the only drawback was an unlimited number of the most voracious and particularly poisonous mosquitoes that we met with during our entire trip. Add to this the ... frequent attacks of that most enervating of all fevers, known as the 'mountain ail,' and you will see why we did not work up more of that country.... Which of the two should be considered as the most unbearable it is impossible to state.


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