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The life of Timothy H. O'Sullivan

The story of the Irishman who helped shape American--and Arizonan--photography.

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Long before photography was considered a cool art, and long before photography prices shot through the proverbial museum roof, Ansel Adams got hold of an album of forgotten 19th-century photographs of the West.

Almost 2 feet long and bound in brown linen and leather, the fading book had 25 pictures of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada printed on fragile albumen. A handful were by the photographer William Bell, but most--and certainly the best--bore the imprint of Timothy H. O'Sullivan.

Dated 1871 and 1873, these images by O'Sullivan were some of the first-ever photographs of what would become quintessential Arizona subjects. With his cumbersome wet-plate camera, he beautifully captured the chiseled cliff dwellings of Canyon de Chelly, the forbidding Black Canyon at the western edge of the Grand Canyon and spindly saguaros rising up in the desert. His straightforward images of Native Americans, photographed in their own landscape, are thoroughly unromantic.

So in 1942, when Adams' friend Beaumont Newhall asked his advice for a show on photography of the Civil War and the American West, at New York's Museum of Modern Art, Adams eagerly brought up O'Sullivan. He also sent along the album, which nowadays rests in fragile splendor in the archive of Tucson's Center for Creative Photography.

"They were in correspondence over what should go into the show," says Keith McElroy, an elfish UA professor who teaches the history of photography.

Adams was promoting the great Western photographer, and Newhall was pushing a great Civil War photographer.

"It was serendipity," says McElroy. "They finally realized they were talking about the same person--Timothy O'Sullivan. He was right at the heart of American photography, East and West."

Not only was O'Sullivan one of the most intrepid and successful of the U.S. government expedition photographers who roamed the West under appalling conditions in the late 1860s and 1870s, he was one of the best of the Civil War photographers. His photos of the war's anonymous dead, lying bloated in the bloody fields of Gettysburg and elsewhere, are emblazoned into the consciousness of Americans.

"His pictures are part of the American people, whether they know it or not," says Tucson's Terry Etherton, an O'Sullivan champion and dealer. "They're in every history book." And thanks to Ken Burns, who used these images extensively in his TV series on the war, "even people who don't know anything about O'Sullivan know his Civil War photos."

His Western pictures are equally significant to photographers; each new generation comes to O'Sullivan, McElroy notes, "and he never fails." Most of the photographers sent to document the West's native peoples and its geologic formations tried to make this strange new land accessible, even picturesque. Not O'Sullivan. At a time when Manifest Destiny demanded that Americans conquer the land, he pictured a West that was forbidding and inhospitable. With an almost modern sensibility, he made humans and their works insignificant. His photographs picture scenes, like a flimsy boat helpless against the dark shadows of Black Canyon, or explorers almost swallowed up by the crevices of Canyon de Chelly.

"His figures were small, overwhelmed by the landscape," says Mark Klett, an ASU photography prof who tried his own hand at many O'Sullivan subjects in the 1970s Rephotographic Survey Project. "There's not the sense that people were the equal to or above the landscape. They were not in charge."

Other Western photographers, William Henry Jackson, Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge--had a long lifetime to perfect and promote their work. But O'Sullivan died young, of tuberculosis at the age of 41 or 42, in 1882. His exalted reputation, which continues to grow in tandem with his skyrocketing prices, rests on a body of work completed in little more than a decade, between 1862 and 1874. And he made his groundbreaking photographs while dodging Confederate bullets, warding off malaria, swimming against rapids and desperately digging for water in Death Valley--in August.

"His life," declares Etherton, "is worthy of a screenplay. It's a great story."


O'SULLIVAN WAS BORN IN 1840, one year after the new-fangled invention of photography, but his exact birthplace remains a mystery.

His father listed Ireland as the place of birth on his son's death certificate, and historians generally agree that he was Irish-born.

Etherton says one contemporary remembered him speaking with an Irish brogue. But O'Sullivan himself, in a job application to the United States Treasury Department in 1880, declared that Staten Island was his native place.

He may not have been above stretching the truth to get a job he really needed. On the same application, he claimed that he had served in the Union Army for six months, but his biographer, Joel Snyder, could find no proof of this in records. Perhaps O'Sullivan thought he had a better chance of winning the post if he were native-born; the accomplishments of America's immigrant Irish during the Civil War had improved their reputation, but they were still an often-despised minority.

His parents, Jeremiah and Ann, were not living in Staten Island in 1840, according to census records, Snyder reports in his book American Frontiers: The Photographs of Timothy O'Sullivan, 1867-1874. Nor does St. Peter's, the family church where he was confirmed and buried, have baptismal records for young Timothy, though the church was founded in 1839. He first shows up in the document as Tim Sullivan, a boy of 15, being confirmed in the church on Nov. 11, 1855.

But whether Timothy was FBI--foreign-born Irish--or CIA--conceived in America--his parents were indeed Irish. When they fled Ireland is unknown, but it's possible that their son's first and most treacherous journey was across the Atlantic on one of the death ships escaping the famine of the mid-1840s.

Little is known of O'Sullivan's upbringing--he left no letters or diaries--but he wrote a with fine hand, suggesting early educational intervention by a nun or two. He was almost certainly raised in an Irish community. Near St. Peter's Church, at the settlement of Tompkinsville, the Americans established a quarantine hospital for the thousands of half-starved Irish travelers struck by cholera on the long voyage to America. Many of the hospital's survivors settled in St. Peter's parish, and young O'Sullivan doubtless grew up on their tales of the perilous journey from a distant land. And he could stand on the hills of Staten Island, which rise up in gentle slopes over New York harbor, and see for miles out to sea, watching ships sailing toward distant shores.

Legend has it, says McElroy, that the photographer Mathew Brady lived near the O'Sullivans on Staten Island, giving the boy an opportunity for his photographic apprenticeship. Whether they were neighbors or not, by about 1856, young Timothy was training in Brady's velvet-lined New York portrait gallery, a singularly cushy place to launch a career that would routinely send him to the battlefield and the wilderness. O'Sullivan soon was shipped down to Washington, D.C., to work in a satellite Brady studio headed by Alexander Gardner, who would also distinguish himself in Civil War photography.

"Brady was a dandy who wore doe-skin pants and thick glasses; he didn't make his own photos," McElroy says. "He hired 'operators,'" as photographers were disparagingly called. "Gardner was the brains behind the operation."

The apprentice got good training in the new craft, and after war broke out in 1861, Brady took him along to the battle of Bull Run. The Union was confident of victory, and the 21-year-old O'Sullivan planned to photograph the fighting.

Both expectations were ignominiously confounded. The South routed the North, and "a shell from one of the rebel field pieces" exploded O'Sullivan's camera, according to a Harper's reporter. Photographers and soldiers alike hightailed it back to Washington.

It was going to be a long war.

Brady had a nasty habit of not crediting his photographers for their work, and Gardner soon broke away from the studio, taking O'Sullivan with him. The young photographer went on to shoot gripping images in the aftermath of most of the war's major battles, from Second Manassas to Appomattox.

"There are no actual battle pictures," Etherton notes. "He did camps, troops and atrocities, not the battle while it was happening. That would have been incredibly hard. With the camera and the wet plate negative in the field, that was not going to happen."

Until the Civil War, photography had been a refined, mostly indoor craft, geared toward people in their Sunday best stopping by the studio for a family portrait. The Civil War changed all that. Its photographers essentially invented photojournalism, though McElroy says they were not always above staging their scenes. In these days, the wet-plate collodion technique required them to haul around a portable darkroom--the soldiers nicknamed them the "what-is-it wagons"--to develop the glass negatives right after shooting the image.

The drill, says McElroy, went like this: Set up the camera. Quickly coat a glass plate with gooey collodion. Put the glass in a plateholder. Insert it in the camera, expose it for some seconds. Rush the plate to the darkroom tent and immediately bathe it in the developer chemicals and the fixer.

The job was simply too daunting for most of the war's fledgling shutterbugs.

"Four hundred photographers were credited by the Union Army, but the number who produced anything of value were relatively few," McElroy says.

O'Sullivan not only successfully made the difficult transition from studio to field; his pictures were among the best of the war. When Gardner published his famous Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, 44 of the 100 images were by his former protégé.

At war's end, O'Sullivan returned to Washington, but the studio must have been suffocating after his adventures in the field. But he was soon to find a new outlet. The federal government, fresh from subduing the South, was eagerly organizing survey expeditions aimed at winning the West. O'Sullivan's war work had trained him perfectly for the rigors of the frontier. In 1867, like many young men, he went West.


KLETT, AN O'SULLIVAN admirer, says the photographer "thought a lot of himself."

"He was a braggart, sort of an Irish tough guy," he says.

O'Sullivan was a natural choice for the expeditions. These multi-disciplinary teams, charged with discovering the best ways to exploit the natural resources of the West, brought along geologists, artists and plant scientists, as well as photographers. Some of the explorers, John Wesley Powell of Grand Canyon fame among them, attempted ethnographic studies. O'Sullivan's second expedition employer, George Wheeler, "was just interested in knowing what kind of fuss the Indians would put up," Klett says, and the photographs were used to grease the wheels of Manifest Destiny.

"An argument could be made that these images had a negative effect," Etherton says. "All of the West was looked at as an opportunity, to build a railroad, to dig a mine, to move people out."

In 1867, Clarence King, a 25-year-old Yale graduate, hired the Irish tough guy for his Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. Funded by the War Department, the plan was to survey the unexplored territory between the California Sierras and the Rockies, with an eye toward finding the best place to lay railroad tracks while gauging mining possibilities and the level of Indian hostility. In May, the party sailed to Panama, crossed the jungle by narrow-gauge railroad and continued on to San Francisco. There, O'Sullivan bought a leftover war ambulance to serve as his traveling darkroom, and four mules to haul it.

Beginning the climb up the Sierra Nevada mountains in July, the team crossed the Donner Pass at night, "when the mountain air froze (the snow) into a crust firm enough to support them," writes Snyder. Most of the crew, excluding O'Sullivan, came down with malaria in a mosquito-plagued valley, and King himself was struck by lightning on Job's Peak and was temporarily paralyzed.

O'Sullivan nearly drowned in the Truckee River (which runs from Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake, located in northwestern Nevada) when his boat got jammed against rocks.

"Being a swimmer of no ordinary power, (he) succeeded in reaching the shore ... he was carried a hundred yards down the rapids ... The sharp rocks ... had so cut and bruised his body that he was glad to crawl into the brier tangle that fringed the river's brink," Harper's reported in 1869. He also lost his money, when his pocketbook, "freighted with three hundred dollars in gold pieces," landed in the river, but he told the story later with good humor.

"That was rough," Harper's quoted O'Sullivan, "for I never found that 'dust' again, though I prospected a long time, barefooted for it."

Despite this near-Biblical string of disasters, King insisted that his men dress for dinner each evening and speak in French, McElroy says, and the son of Irish immigrants seems to have had no trouble fitting in.

"They all liked him," McElroy says. "He had a great personality. His energy made him a good expedition person."

In the three difficult years of the King Expedition, O'Sullivan took mesmerizing pictures, of otherworldly rocks rising out of Nevada's Pyramid Lake, of endless sand dunes overpowering his little mule-drawn darkroom. He even scored a technical first. During the winter of 1867-68, in Virginia City, Nev., he made the first underground mining pictures in America. Deep in mines where temperatures topped out at 130 degrees, O'Sullivan took pictures by the light of magnesium wire.

"He had a unique vision on the Western surveys," Etherton says. "Basically, he was a hired hand sent to bring out information: What are the possibilities of a railroad? What is the situation with the Indians? But he had an incredible eye; he made pictures that don't look like anyone else's pictures at that time. They were not romantic at all."

In October 1868, O'Sullivan was back in Washington, making prints from the glass plates he hauled back across the country. Now 28 years old, he found time to court Laura Virginia Pywell, whose brother was the photographer William Reddish Pywell. He gave his sweetheart a picture of himself, and, Snyder tells us, she wrote on the back: "Given to me by Mr. Sullivan on December 5, 1868." (O'Sullivan seems to have dropped the "O" on his name from time to time.)

Laura had to make do with the picture while the real O'Sullivan roamed the wilderness: They would not get married for another five years.

In fact, six months after he gave her the gift, he was back in Salt Lake City for his final season with King, exploring the mountains around the Great Salt Lake. He returned East again, but before long, the restless photographer had signed on to a Navy expedition to Panama. He sailed in January 1870. But in the tropics, O'Sullivan found himself out of kilter. He had become accustomed to the American West, where the bones of the land are etched against clear empty skies. In the jungle, he was stumped by the thick green vegetation crowding out the horizon. The Panama pictures are murky, and the Navy did not rehire him.

But O'Sullivan was on the verge of the best work of his career. Arizona awaited.


O'SULLIVAN'S FIRST ARIZONA journey began in September 1871. This time around, he was a military photographer, working for Lt. George Montague Wheeler's grandly named U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian.

The military, McElroy says, had become jealous of the numerous civilian expeditioners, like King, whom they saw as infringing on their domain. The Wheeler tour of the Southwest was an antidote, meant to "soothe the military's ruffled feathers."

The photographer was a more-than-experienced expeditioner at this point, but the ordeals of the Wheeler survey tested him. All the surveys had their macho side, McElroy points out, glorying in "males naked in the wilderness." But the militaristic Wheeler was extreme, ordering his team on lengthy forced marches (Snyder says one lasted 80 hours), trekking in the summer across Death Valley. It was there that O'Sullivan, abandoned by his guide, went nearly two days without water.

But the Arizona leg was the most outlandish. Wheeler insisted that the team explore the Colorado River by heading upstream into the Grand Canyon--apparently to outshine his rival, John Wesley Powell, who had first gone downriver in 1869. There was no particular scientific reason to do the trip backward.

The team loaded into three wooden boats. O'Sullivan commanded a boat he named Picture. To go upstream over the perilous rapids, men "rowed, towed and portaged" their boats, as the photographer Rick Dingus put it in his book The Photographic Artifacts of Timothy O'Sullivan. Wheeler's boat was lost entirely, together with his notes and much of their food.

The expedition geologist, Grove Karl Gilbert, wrote in his diary about "the gloom of the (Black) canyon." On Sept. 21, he noted that a strong wind "interfered with photography and kept O'Sullivan in a perpetual state of profanity" and on Sept. 25, after the toil of pulling the boats, "O'Sullivan's hand so sore we make no pictures here."

After 33 grueling days, and 200 miles of upriver traveling, the party reached their destination, Diamond Creek in the Grand Canyon. Many of the glass plates so arduously produced were broken en route back to Washington.

But despite the travails on the river, O'Sullivan's remaining 400 negatives produced spectacular photographs. Snyder writes that the Black Canyon pictures "begin drenched in light, progress into an abyss of blackness where human figures can barely be made out, and emerge again into the light."

The picture "Black Canyon", looking above from Camp 8, Colorado River, Arizona, 1871" is Etherton's favorite in all photography.

"It's one of the most sublime pictures of the 19th century," Etherton says. "What's great is that it's a flat-out beautiful image, and it has so much stuff about the history of photography. Because of the time exposure the water is smoothed out. The sky is neutral because it was not sensitive to emulsions--you could picture clouds only through a separate negative. The sky becomes a neutral space, a sculptural element."

O'Sullivan spent the 1872 season with King, taking photographs in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. But by February 1873, he was back in Washington on a personal mission. On Feb. 11, he married Laura Pywell in E Street Baptist Church, his Catholic parents' perspective on this "mixed marriage" unrecorded.

He lingered with his new bride all of three months before returning to Arizona a final time with Wheeler. This time around--wisely--he escaped Wheeler's scrutiny by occasionally heading side exploration parties. He made some gentler Arizona images, trees ringing White Mountain lakes, but it was on this 1873 expedition that he made his pivotal Canyon de Chelly pictures, with his views of Indian life and his New Mexican churches. These images, now so stereotyped by Arizona Highways photographers and hordes of amateurs, were entirely fresh.

"There was nothing to go by. These were new subjects," Etherton points out, as there were not yet conventions for Indian photographs. "O'Sullivan had probably seen (Indian) delegation portraits. O'Sullivan would have been aware of formal, interior studio portraits of Indians. His pictures in the field were totally different."

Thus, 30 years before Edward S. Curtis began romanticizing Western Indians' "dying way of life," O'Sullivan matter-of-factly photographed Apache scouts and Navajo weavers. In the 1873 Navajo picture contained in the Ansel Adams album, he's pictured a domestic scene, a woman at the loom outdoors, men gathered around. There's nothing romantic about this picture of defeated people trying their best to put back together a life.

McElroy swears that "Mrs. Powell designed costumes for the Indians" to be photographed by her husband's expedition photographer. But, "O'Sullivan's Native Americans seem to be the most direct. ... O'Sullivan shows Indians wearing blue jeans. He recorded things just as they were."

O'Sullivan was preternaturally modern in other ways. A close-up of an Arizona rock, "Rock Carved by Drifting Sand," ostensibly photographed to demonstrate erosion, becomes an abstraction of shapes and shadows. And Klett notes how often he included references to himself as a photographer into his images. A famous picture from El Moro National Monument includes O'Sullivan's yardstick measuring an inscription carved by a Spanish conquistador.

"He was self-conscious," Klett says. "He'll include the dark tent, the wagon, the horse, his bottle or a scale or ruler. These indicate he was a participant in the scene. I've been influenced by that very much. O'Sullivan got me to think of that. It's not an objective document: A person is engaged in making this picture. That's a very contemporary idea. You don't see that in anybody else of his time."

And his Canyon de Chelly landscapes continue to influence photographers. O'Sullivan photographed the cliffs looming over tiny tents pitched in the valley, and he took a beautifully textured view of the rock walls in White House Ruins.

"Ansel Adams was one of the people who brought O'Sullivan out of obscurity," Kless says. "As a landscape photographer himself, he could understand him."

Klett maintains that O'Sullivan is "one of the most important of the 19th-century photographers of landscape. Carleton Watkins has gotten a lot of press. He was a great photographer but O'Sullivan was unique."

McElroy is more measured.

"He was the right person in the right place," he says. "He had a great personality. He was a great photographer. Why wouldn't he hit great stuff? I could take any one of his most famous pictures and find someone who did it equally well. But O'Sullivan had enormous range. ... He was at the nexus of something very important, the Civil War, American culture. His work is still a time capsule of that moment in American history."


O'SULLIVAN MADE ONE MORE trip out West, in 1874, photographing in Colorado and northern New Mexico for Wheeler. At the end of the expedition, he went back to Shoshone Falls in Idaho, to make what would be his last images of the West. Capturing the waters of the Snake River blasting over a precipice, the pictures are at once ominous and sublime, a fitting valedictory for his work in the West.

After Shoshone Falls, O'Sullivan's long run of Irish luck came to an end. He was reunited with Laura in Washington, but he scratched out an unsatisfactory living, printing for Wheeler, working as a commercial photographer. A plan to print his Western views for his own profit went nowhere. In September 1876, he buried his only child, a stillborn son. No minister or undertaker was present at Rock Creek Cemetery, and biographer Snyder believes O'Sullivan laid the baby in the grave himself. In 1880, his good friend Lewis E. Walker, photographer for the Treasury, died, and O'Sullivan applied for the job. Letters of recommendation poured in from his satisfied past employers--it's from these letters that we get much of our information on him--and he must have been relieved to be hired.

But he and Laura were both stricken with tuberculosis shortly thereafter, and he had to quit his new job after only five months. Oddly, perhaps, he went home to his parents' house on Staten Island to be nursed, while Laura apparently stayed with her family.

In October 1881, Laura died without him. He managed to get back for her funeral, and saw her buried next to their infant son; he promised his Washington friends he'd return by Christmas. But his lungs hemorrhaged in December.

On Jan. 17, 1882, the man who had traveled tens of thousands of miles, and survived most dangers the 19th century had to offer, died at home of a commonplace disease.

His grieving father laid his son to rest among the Irish in St. Peter's churchyard, and he lies there still, in an unmarked grave.

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