Timothy O’Sullivan was born in Ireland in 1840 to Jeremiah and Ann Sullivan. Two years later, the Sullivans moved to Louisiana and then in 1852 moved to Staten Island, New York. It was there he met and began working with photographer Matthew Brady. O’Sullivan worked with Brady as a studio assistant until 1858 when he joined Alexander Gardner to open a studio for Brady in Washington D.C. Evidence suggests he served in the Civil War briefly, and during this service, he took the first photos credited to him in South Carolina, adding the “O” to Sullivan for the first time. After leaving military service, he worked first with Brady and then with Alexander Gardner to photograph the Civil War until its end in 1865. He produced some of the most memorable photos of the war and earned himself a reputation that caused Clarence King and George Wheeler to seek him out for their survey teams.
William F. Stapp, “Chronology: Timothy H. O’Sullivan” in Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 187-193.
In 1867, geologist and explorer Clarence King hired O’Sullivan as a photographer on the first United States Survey of the Fortieth Parallel. This was a geological survey mostly covering Eastern California, Southern Wyoming, Northern Utah and Colorado and Western Nevada and continued until 1872. In 1871, however, Lieutenant George M. Wheeler requested that King allow him to hire O’Sullivan for the Geographical Explorations and Surveys of the One Hundredth Meridian.
There are two ways that O’Sullivan and his work are typically interpreted: Either he was a modernist or he was merely a documentary camera operator. Since O’Sullivan was not one to keep his own records or any diaries, we are left to speculate about what his motivations or contributions to the survey teams. Critics, such as Rosalind Krauss, claimed that the nature of O’Sullivan’s work (being directed on what to capture by employers) fundamentally forfeits the ability for his work to be art. The primary critical hesitation to consider O’Sullivan an artist stems mostly from his association with Clarence King. He had a penchant for the dramatic–not only in his personality (frequently telling grandiose tales) but also in his scientific views. With regard to geological history, King was certain the Western landscape could be explained by catastrophism–the sudden burst of violent energy from inside the earth.
Rosalind Krauss, “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View,” Art Journal 42 (1982): 313.
Clarence King, 1877. “Catastrophism and Evolution”. The American Naturalist 11 (8). [University of Chicago Press, American Society of Naturalists]: 449–70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2447810.
To King, this survey and O’Sullivan’s photography could help prove that theory. He wanted to show the landscape as if it had been post-catastrophic event. There is no written record that King gave explicit instructions to O’Sullivan about how to capture the landscape. However, in his journal, Samuel Franklin Emmons gives the impression that O’Sullivan was not merely following directions. Emmons suggests the pictures were the result of a collaboration of the entire team. O’Sullivan was trusted very much by King and was frequently on his own, occasionally even leading side parties. During the Wheeler Survey, the day’s journey would sometimes be stopped to allow for O’Sullivan to set up a frame or capture an image at a particular time of day, showing that O’Sullivan’s attention to detail with his photos was appreciated by Wheeler.
William Whitman Bailey, Diary of a Journey in California and Nevada, Biodiversity Heritage Library Online, 1867-1868, 30-138.
Toby Jurovics, Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 19, 30.
As Toby Jurovics states, “Moreover, photographs do not make themselves: they are the product of an individual and his choices, not a bureaucracy.[…] O’Sullivan’s photographs do not look like those of his colleagues and are clearly distinguishable as his own.” Credit must be given to O’Sullivan’s creativity for continual problem solving and ingenuity he brought to the survey team.
Toby Jurovics, Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 36.
While there were many other photographers who were making a decent living at the same time by catering to public interest, for some reason O’Sullivan never succeeded privately. It could be that he felt more able to freely use his photos to express himself while on the survey teams. The photos were already paid for at the beginning of the expeditions, and O’Sullivan never had to sell any photos himself. He had all new equipment provided to him by King and Wheeler and while he had to provide them with pictures, he was able to have some freedom about what he captured and how it was done. O’Sullivan loved being outside and taking pictures and if he could be paid and his equipment provided for it seems perfectly logical that he would return year after year to participate in the survey teams.
It would seem that Timothy O’Sullivan was hired to take photographs to illustrate a certain idea of King but he also was a very gifted artist. He had certain techniques and ways of photographing that are appreciated by landscape photographers years after he has gone. He seemed to enjoy his work very much, which could be attributed to his love of being out in the field and being free from the burden of selling to a public audience. Even if the ideas of catastrophism were being pushed by King, O’Sullivan still made the artistic choices he made, was an essential part of the team and the results were beautiful.
Bailey, William Whitman Diary of a Journey in California and Nevada, Biodiversity Heritage Library Online, 1867-1868, 30-138.
Jurovics, Toby Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010,
King, Clarence. 1877. “Catastrophism and Evolution”. The American Naturalist 11 (8). University of Chicago Press, American Society of Naturalists: 449–70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2447810.
Krauss, Rosalind “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View,” Art Journal 42 (1982): 313.
Stapp, William F. “Chronology: Timothy H. O’Sullivan” in Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy O’Sullivan, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, 187-200.