Although little evidence survives regarding the personal life of Timothy H. O’Sullivan (1840-1882), his photographic legacy is extensive. Despite his short life, O’Sullivan was a major figure in two areas of early American photography: Civil War documentation and the surveying of the American West.
O’Sullivan was born in 1840, probably in Ireland, but his family moved to the United States in 1842, as part of the massive wave of immigrants who fled the severe potato famine. By the age of 18, O’Sullivan began working in Mathew Brady’s photographic studio in Washington D.C. The studio was dedicated to making portraits, but with the onset of the Civil War, Brady turned his attention to field photography. In 1861 and 1862 O’Sullivan photographed the Civil War for Mathew Brady, but spent the rest of the war working for Alexander Gardner. O’Sullivan made a variety of pictures including individual and group portraits of military members, views of camps, forts, bridges, railroads, buildings, earthworks, towns, fields and plantations, and of changes wrought by the war. These pictures were published in Photographic Incidents of the War from the Gallery of Alexander Gardner, Photographer to the Army of the Potomac and Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, 1865/1866.
Beginning with his field photography during the civil war, and continuing into his survey photography, Timothy O’Sullivan made glass plate collodion negatives. Also known as wet-plate, this process of coating the glass with wet collodion just prior to exposure in the camera was particularly difficult when employed in the field. The coating process and the need to develop the negative immediately after exposure, required traveling with portable darkrooms, or dark tents. In order to make large photographic prints, large glass negatives were needed, and traveling across the countryside by wagon with chemicals, large wooden cameras, and many sheets of glass made the process quite burdensome by today’s standards.
Throughout his career O’Sullivan also made stereographic views. Collected widely in Victorian America, stereographs display two nearly identical images mounted side-by-side on a small card. Designed to imitate human binocular vision, they are best seen in a special viewer, called a stereoscope, which blocks out peripheral vision and creates the illusion of a three-dimensional image. Since these images are created with a special camera featuring two lenses separated by the same distance as human eyes, O’Sullivan had to travel with additional equipment in order to make the highly marketable stereographic views.
In 1867 he was appointed to Clarence King’s Geological Explorations of the Fortieth Parallel and photographed for King in 1867-1869 and again in 1872 in California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho. The first season’s survey had two explicit concerns: to study the natural resources along the Union and Central Pacific Railroads, and to document the geology of a section of the West one hundred miles wide from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Rocky Mountains. Unstated, but implicit in the survey goals, was promoting the region’s future development by white settlers, so the crew also identified possibilities for economic development, recording the local flora and fauna, evaluating the opportunities for mining, and assessing Indian hostilities. The survey exploration was arduous – King’s men endured steep, snowy mountain passes, hot desert basins, and rough rivers. Most of the men caught malaria, O’Sullivan being one of the few to avoid it.
Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler hired O’Sullivan in September of 1870 to join his survey of the American Southwest. Wheeler’s expeditions differed from King’s in several ways: it was the only military expedition of the four major expeditions to be conducted in the West, and unlike King, Wheeler appreciated the value of photographs for promoting the survey itself. The goals, however, were similar to King’s: to prepare accurate maps, document the physical features of the land, find sites for roads and military operations, assess the population and disposition of the resident Indian peoples, and evaluate the geology and vegetation as to their usefulness to settlers.
During the 1872 season, O’Sullivan returned to work with King photographing in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, but by 1873 was back with Wheeler. The intervening winter allowed O’Sullivan to print two sets of King survey photographs which were sent to the 1873 World’s Fair in Vienna. That year he spent the season in Arizona and New Mexico, making images of the Grand Canyon, and taking perhaps his most famous survey photograph of the White House Ruins in Canyon de Chelly. The winter of 1873-4 was spent in Washington D.C. printing for both King and Wheeler, and in May O’Sullivan began producing official sets of images from Wheeler’s survey, comprised of both large format and stereographic views. In July of 1874 O’Sullivan embarked on his last season of photography in the West. He began in New Mexico and Colorado photographing Indians and the countryside for Wheeler, and then took a solo trip to a site he had photographed many years before: Shoshone Falls in Idaho. He then returned to Washington D.C., where he continued to work, including a brief job with the United States Treasury Department in 1880-1881. O’Sullivan left the government position just five months after beginning, due to tuberculosis, from which he died on 14 January 1882, at age 42.