Art...may be defined as a single-minded attempt to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect. It is an attempt to find in its forms, in its colours, in its light, in its shadows, in the aspects of matter and in the facts of life, what of each is fundamental, what is enduring and essential -- their one illuminating and convincing quality -- the very truth of their existence.1
Timothy O'Sullivan is nothing less than an artist. His photographs are the outcome of a "single-minded attempt to render the hightest kind of justice to the visible universe," discovering and portraying the essential truth of things. On the landscape of the Civil War, he confronted the essence of war, from its most concrete to its most conceptual and emotional reality. He conveyed this essence through the forms and space and light of life. In the wilds of the West, he discovered the essence of the landscape itself. In the move from the war to the West, his photographs become less ideological and analytic. Yet, this was not for lack of ideas to express about the landscape, with King, Wheeler, and the aesthetic traditions of his time providing more than enough theories on the value of nature. Rather, he refused to espouse any of these, and portrayed the essence of landscape resident not in theories, but in its most visual reality. In this move from "the facts of life," to "the aspects of matter," O'Sullivan explored the depths of visual expression as both medium and subject. Through his interaction with the landscape, O'Sullivan could make it speak about war, perception, or about itself. What made it a useful medium was its power as a subject. For, of all the realities O'Sullivan discovered, he most valued the visual reality for its power of expression both within and outside of the photographer's frame. As Robert Adams writes, "A photographer is impelled first by a love of the appearance of things...[an] affectionate interest in outer fact."2
As we have seen, there are photographs that seem to approach a sort of abstract expressionism in which the formal elements of the image, as opposed to a symbolic or narrative subject, express the meaning and mood of the piece. Many of O'Sullivan's frontier photographs revel in formal effects, while the subjects of even his Civil War photographs, such as "Pontoon Boat" and "Fort Sedgwick," are eclipsed by the power of their formal elements. And nearly all of his photographs lack any sign of artistry and appear to be self-evidently true and meaningful. Nevertheless, as we have seen, these effects are created by a very careful and attentive process of manipulations in perspective and composition.
By using perspectives and composition, O'Sullivan appeared to make the image and the subject speak for themselves, and largely did. He certainly had a technique by which he portrayed his subjects, but it was out of respect to and in justice of the subject. For, he discovered and amplified what was already there. Yet, this act of discovery was subjective. Neither denying nor railing against subjectivity, he acknowledged and tempered the part it played in discovering, defining, and portraying his subject. Perhaps the most noted quality of O'Sullivan's work is the balance he strikes between subjectivity and objectivity:
One senses that for O'Sullivan a photograph was equally an image chosen and organized by the artist and a specimen of preexisting physical fact recorded by the technician. The perfectly balanced tension between these subjective and objective concerns is a central characteristic of his work.3
As we can see from one of its first practitioners, photography, even documentary photography, has, from its inception, been a practice of balancing the subjective and objective. Perhaps it is because we continue to be "spellbound by the idea of objectivity"4 that we have been so slow to acknowledge the sophistication of thought put into this early documentary work and so quick to misunderstand the work of O'Sullivan. Surely we have in O'Sullivan not merely one of the first photo-documentarists, but one of the best. We may ask ourselves how photography might have developed if O'Sullivan's work had been better recognized. Also intriguing is the question of how O'Sullivan's work and photography itself might have developed if they had not been in interaction with the war and the national explorations.
It is also difficult to gage the impact of O'Sullivan's photographs upon the country to which he had revealed its own image. His Civil War photographs, especially "A Harvest of Death", made the violence of war a reality to his contemporaries. And they continue to allow us to access our history visually and imaginatively. O'Sullivan's stereoscopic views were among the thousands broadly distributed to teach America how to view its West. As such, they could have played a powerful role in shaping attitudes toward expansion, the land, and a sense of national identity. Yet, for every O'Sullivan picture, there were many times more done in the picturesque tradition. "O'Sullivan's [fontier] prints never received much critical acclaim during the nineteenth century. His sometimes mottled photographs probably seemed to his contemporaries a bit coarse and lacking in the craftsmanship, polish, and refinements of taste required of an artist."5
Perhaps the reason it is so difficult to get a sense of how much O'Sullivan's photographs shaped his contemporaries' sense of national identity is because the qualities they express are so different from the qualities embodied in the historical events of war and westward expansion. In a sense, O'Sullivan's work essentially documents violence, conflict, and conquest. He witnessed first hand the violence between Northerners and Southerners and between whites and Native Americans. He confonted the chaos of war and the dizzying vastness of the western landscape. Yet, his photographs are calm, clear, and ordered, beautiful, sensitive, yet strong. Perhaps most importantly, they are not the expression of intensely espoused and enforced ideologies, but of open-minded exploration and self-conscious reflection.
Though he had a limited impact on his contemporaries, O'Sullivan has influenced people of more recent times. Photographers such as Ansel Adams claim him as an influence, and High Sierra has appropriated his images for the cause of conservation. Adams suggests that O'Sullivan's frontier photographs offer us an image of the landscape before it was ruined by westward expansion. He concludes that we look back at pictures like O'Sullivan's with a nostalgia for a lost innocence, and that they have the power to tell us now what the costs of expansion and of our definition of freedom have been.6 That may be true. Yet, their innocence is as much an expression of the individual who created them as the time period in which they were created.