Timothy O'Sullivan was one of the first people to call himself a photographer. 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. His field work began on the Civil War battlefields and took him to the western frontier. Of the tens of thousands of Civil War photographs and the thousands more frontier photographs of the nineteenth-century, O'Sullivan's have, from Alexander Gardner, his employer and fellow photographer, to modern critics, been singled out as some of the most sensitive, powerful and enduring.
Little is known about Timothy O'Sullivan who, living and recording some of the most iconic aspects of the American experience, seems almost more myth than man. He was born in Ireland in1840, and at the age of two emigrated with his family to New York during the potato famine. In 1858, O'Sullivan began his apprenticeship in Mathew Brady's New York gallery, and was later transferred to the Washington D.C. gallery, run by Alexander Gardner. At the beginning of the Civil War, O'Sullivan assisted Brady in creating a comprehensive photographic history of the war. In 1863, however, he left Brady to join Gardner who had split with Brady in 1862 and had opened his own business. Working for Gardner, O'Sullivan continued to document the war until its end in 1866.
As if embodying the American drive to move ever westward, and Manifest Destiny itself, the emigrant from Ireland next joined various government survey expeditions in exploring and photographing the western frontier. Such expeditions were a forerunner and catalyst of the expansion that would, by the end of the century, close the frontier forever. O'Sullivan explored and photographed California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho as a member of two different expeditions. A third expedition took him briefly to Panama.
O'Sullivan spent many winters (the off-season for surveying) in Washington D.C. making prints from the negatives he had made on the expeditions. It was also in Washington that he met and married Laura Virginia Pywll, the sister of a Washington photographer, William Reddish Pywell. They would have one stillborn son in 1876 after O'Sullivan had returned to the East for what was to be the remainder of his life. He held various photographic jobs in Washington including photographer of the Treasury, until tuberculosis of the lungs forced him to resign and shortly thereafter took his life at the age of forty-one or forty-two.
As a photographer in the nineteenth century, O'Sullivan was surrounded by debates about the meaning of nation and nature, reality, art, and perception. As we will see, his work in the war and with the surveys could only have brought the issues of these debates to the forefront of his own work. The rich context of debate in which O'Sullivan's photographs were made, no doubt contributes to the desire which many have felt to attribute a personal style to O'Sullivan. Yet, with little in the way of a biography, and even less record of O'Sullivan's own words about his photography, there is little to shed light on the meaning of his work, as either a voice in the debates or an expression of a personaly artistic style. His photographs must speak not only for themselves, but for the man as well.
Yet, it is clear that the photographs themselves, and not just the conceptual debates of the nineteenth century, beg for the identification of a personal style. For, people have continually singled out O'Sullivan's works and gone to great lengths to learn something more about these photographs by a man of whom little is known, and little more is likely ever to be known.
Both the Civil War photographs and western frontier photographs of the nineteenth century are generally thought of as two genres similarly confined to a realistic style by the conventions and limitations of the medium and by the photographers' sense of their goals and profession:
O'Sullivan's photographs...are among the most memorable of the war. But this is not to say that he had developed a personal style. That would have been contrary to the purpose for which the photographs were made - to be sold. For the most part, Civil War photographs were designed to reassure the audience that there had been no narrative or authorial intervention on the part of the picture maker. There is an uncanny sameness to the look of most of the photographs. Nearly all were made straight-on, without any tilting of the camera. Nearly all were made at a respectable or even great distance from the subject. The depth of field - the range of apparent maximum sharpness - is great; all planes are rendered in sharp delineation. The photographs deemphasize the picture maker's function as a narrator who directs attention to particular aspects of a scene. The audience...was not prepared to think of war views as 'subjective impressions' or as 'personal interpretations.' 2
Early western photographers worked in a genre that was fundamentally different from most nineteenth-century painting or more modern photography....Instead, the photographic pioneers of the American West thought of their medium as a narrative, whose richest potential was realized not by one picture but through a string of images augmented with literary text. Although they worked with awkward and bulky equipment and could not make instantaneous 'snapshots'...their approach was influenced less by equipment then by their deeply held ideas about the nature and business of photography. They thought of themselves as storytellers and had little faith in the descriptive usefulness of a single image. 3
Certainly, the photographs within both genres, but especially the first, are overwhelmingly similar in appearance and subject matter. And certainly photographers were limited by the medium, the goals of their projects, and the demands of business. However, that is not to say that such demands and limitations preclude the possibility of developing a personal style. Timothy Sweet notes the role that the war played in catalyzing a documentary style:
The idea of the documentary photograph was more or less inherent in the 'truthful' representational capabilities of the medium, itself, but the war played an important role in its emergence because now there was so much history to record. 4
Rather than seeing the war as sealing the stylistic fate of the early photographs and reducing the photographer to a mere recorder of fact, we ought to think of the war as both the school in which O'Sullivan developed his own photographic style, and a shaping force of that style. For, a choice to photograph a certain subject in a certain way is still a choice, however much influenced by other factors and circumstances. And what are consciously made choices but a personal style? Writing in the nineteenth-century, one photographer noted, "It has been denied that our art has sufficient plasticity to admit of modifications sufficient to enable a photographer to express himself in his material. We own it is limited, yet all arts have their limitations, and to be successful must work within them."5 As we shall see in the following sections, if the Civil War and frontier photographers did not think of themselves as artists, O'Sullivan, at least, behaved as one. His photographs evince the commitment and thought-out choices of not a mere recorder of events, but of an image maker and an artist working creatively with the limitations of his projects. Furthermore, far from inadequate fragments of a larger narrative, O'Sullivan's photographs are the work of someone who had found a medium and developed a technique that afforded him a satisfying form of expression.
Disguised as the acquiescence to universal conventions of historical and scientific objectivity as well as of the photographic medium, O'Sullivan's style and technique must be clarified through a process of recovery. Through close readings of the photographs, and providing background on the photographic projects O'Sullivan undertook, I will provide the perspective from which O'Sullivan's choices and decisions, in short his artistry, may be seen. From this vantage point it will be clear that O'Sullivan's interest in his subject was rivaled only by his interest in representing that subject with a measure of truth and accuracy in image. His efforts at truth and accuracy were, no doubt, due to respect for his subject, and to the goals of his projects. His photographs suggest that as a photographer, explorer, and as a person who lived through the disruptions of the Civil War, he found that the meaning and reality of a subject is dependent upon the perspectives from which it is viewed and considered. Thus, he portrays his subjects with truth and accuracy through the use of perspectives, both visual and conceptual while also recognizing the limitations of perspective and representation. For, as Alan Trachtenberg has suggested, perspective is, itself, the subject of his work.6 And the corresponding notions about art and perception, reality and representation are the most philosophical meanings we may safely attribute to his work.
By way of introduction to O'Sullivan and to the process of recovery, consider the one self-portrait O'Sullivan is know to have made.
What can we learn about O'Sullivan and his work from this photograph? It was taken in 1870 in Panama while working with a survey assigned to investigate the feasibility of building a canal. This expedition was relatively unproductive for O'Sullivan. The heat and humidity made it difficult to take photographs as did the dense vegetation. He spent less time exploring the jungles with the rest of the expedition than he did photographing the village and navy life of the coast. Did O'Sullivan turn the camera upon himself in a moment of boredom during this less than fruitful expedition? Perhaps he wanted to document the extent of his travels. Biographer, James D. Horan, suggests that O'Sullivan was a shy man.7 The fact that he took only one self-portrait would seem to corroborate that view. It suggests a humility and an interest in other people and things, if not shyness per se.
The portrait is strange. It not only portrays other people, but it portrays their presence as being as haphazard as that of the rocks in the foreground. The way in which O'Sullivan's dark and bulky camera obscures these figures is not in line with the attention to composition and detail in the rest of the photograph; the emphasis on the receding path and the repetition of the huts and the shape of their overhanging, triangular roofs. It is as if we're not sure that the figures belong in the photograph, though the movement of the dog (evidenced in the two shadowy images it movement created) suggests that its appearance was unplanned. This is uncharacteristic of O'Sullivan's work in which he frames scenes so as to create a balance of every element. This suggests that O'Sullivan did not take this self-portrait as seriously as his other work, or that it served a different purpose. And indeed, there is something a bit tongue in cheek about O'Sullivan standing causally with his hand on his hip in the middle of an anonymous crossroad in Panama. In this way too, the photograph suggests that O'Sullivan was not one to take himself too seriously, but was more interested in what he saw and photographed around him.
In one respect, however, O'Sullivan represents himself very seriously. That is as a photographer. If we are to make any reading of the way in which the camera obscures the people in the background based on the idea that it was intentionally done, we might conclude that O'Sullivan wanted to express the importance of photography to him over even his subject. The clearest thing about the photograph is that O'Sullivan wants to portray his connection with photography, as he stands with his hand on the camera. His legs are overlapped by the legs of the tripod and with the negative space between them, they not only mimic the tripod with the camera on it, but mirror the tripod at the edge of the picture. The association is complete, suggesting not only the importance of photography to him, but its centrality to who and what he is. This is also expressed in the caption which does not identify O'Sullivan by name, but as a photographer. The comparison between human and machine even poses the questions of how objective either a camera or a person can be, how objective photography really is. But before we look at how O'Sullivan dealt with these questions, we must see where they came from and how that might have shaped the way O'Sullivan would answer them.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs are attributable to Timothy O'Sullivan. Larger views of a few of the images may be seen by clicking on them.