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Librarium Home > People > Timothy H. O'Sullivan

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Photographer

Timothy Henry O'Sullivan was born to Jeremiah and Ann O'Sullivan in Ireland in 1840. His family reportedly immigrated to the United States in 1842, at the height of the Irish potato famine, establishing roots in the Tompkinsville settlement of Staten Island, New York. It is believed he likely received a Catholic education, courtesy of nearby St. Peter's Church. According to legend, famed photographer Mathew Brady lived near the O'Sullivan family and offered the boy an apprenticeship. By age 14, Mr. O'Sullivan was working as an operator in Mr. Brady's luxurious New York City portrait studio. Later, he was transferred to Mr. Brady's Washington, DC gallery, where he studied under the tutelage of master photographer Alexander Gardner.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Mr. Brady sent the young 21-year-old prodigy to document the battle of Bull Run. One of the wartime casualties was Mr. O'Sullivan's camera, which illustrates how close the photographer was to the fighting. He, nevertheless, captured some of the most iconic images of the war in his travels from Manassas to Appomattox. Being a Civil War photographer was as grueling and dangerous as being a soldier on the front, as he had to transport boxes of glass plates, chemicals, and stereo-view and large-format cameras over rugged terrain. It was in Gettysburg where Mr. O'Sullivan took his most famous photograph, "A Harvest of Death," which replaced the romantic ideal of noble combat with brutal carnage that "shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to the pageantry." A collection of Mr. O'Sullivan's photographs 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 (in which "A Harvest of Death" was featured).


Mr. O'Sullivan went back to Brady's Washington, DC studio in 1865, but his years in the field led him to undertake several Western surveying expeditions for the federal government. He had the perfect disposition for such rigorous assignments, according to Arizona State University photography professor Mark Klett, who describes Mr. O'Sullivan as "a braggart, sort of an Irish tough guy." In 1867, Clarence King hired him to join his Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel for the War Department, contracted to survey the area from Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Rockies for railroad construction and mining purposes. The practical-minded photographer converted a wartime ambulance into a darkroom hauled by a mule train. The difficult journey was fraught with danger, including Mr. King being struck by lightning (leaving him briefly paralyzed) and Mr. O'Sullivan nearly drowning in Nevada's Truckee River. By 1868, Mr. O'Sullivan was taking what would be the first underground mining pictures in Virginia City, Nevada, forced to rely on magnesium wire for lighting.

The itinerant photographer was back on the road again in 1870, photographing Panama as part of a Navy Department survey known as the Darien Expedition, led by Lieutenant-Commander Thomas O. Selfridge. That September, he joined Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler's survey of the Southwest. Returning to Washington, DC in 1874, Mr. O'Sullivan continued working on various government projects, and briefly worked for the U.S. Treasury Department until a bout with tuberculosis forced him into retirement in 1881. Mr. O'Sullivan died in his hometown of Staten Island on January 14, 1882. Though the name of Timothy H. O'Sullivan remains largely unknown, several of his photographs have become famous courtesy of Ken Burns' award-winning PBS series, The Civil War. According to Terry Etherton, director of Tucson's Etherton Gallery, "His pictures are part of the American people, whether they know it or not."






Ref:
2007 Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1017-1020, 1469.

2017 Gun at Fort Fisher, North Carolina (URL: http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=34131).

2003 The Life of Timothy H. O'Sullivan by Margaret Regan (URL: https://www.tucsonweekly.com/tucson/the-life-of-timothy-h-osullivan/Content?oid=1071872).

2017 Photographs and Drawings of Fort Sedgwick, known as "Fort Hell" (URL: http://www.petersburgproject.org/fort-sedgwick-various-photographers.html).

2006 Photography: A Cultural History by Mary Warner Marien (London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.), p. 134.

2013 Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff Rosenheim (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art), p. 94.



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