timothy o'sullivan, new mexico
AP Photo/National Archives, Timothy H.
O'Sullivan via William Stone

The San Miguel Church in Santa Fe, N.M.,
is shown in this circa 1873 photo. The
picture is one of many featured in
William Stone's book "New Mexico:
Then & Now."

Early Photos of the American West Merge Geography and Art

April 29, 2010 01:25 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
A Smithsonian exhibit of work by photographer Timothy O’Sullivan reveals the harsh terrain of the unsettled American west, making for intriguing classroom discussions.

Desolate Views of the Frontier

A little-known photographer of the 19th century, Timothy O'Sullivan got his start capturing images of the American Civil War. But his photographs of “the hardscrabble landscapes of the American west” are what set him apart, Alexander Ewing explains for More Intelligent Life.

O’Sullivan’s work, much of which was captured during geological expeditions, has often been overlooked in favor of photography by William Henry Jackson and Ansel Adams, but the Irishman had a profound “influence on our romantic sense of the west,” Ewing suggests. His images are more “desolate” than “grand frontier,” portraying “an isolation familiar to the thousands of Americans who migrated” west.

The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., displays the exhibit “Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan" through May 9. The exhibit includes pieces by modern photographers whose work bears resemblance to O’Sullivan’s. It is a chance for the public to see why O’Sullivan is considered “a photographic pioneer of the American landscape,” Ewing writes.

In a profile of O’Sullivan for Tucson Weekly, Margaret Regan discusses the photographer’s “quintessential Arizona subjects,” captured with a “cumbersome wet-plate camera.” Regan also notes O’Sullivan’s “straightforward images of Native Americans, photographed in their own landscape.”

O’Sullivan likely grew up in “an Irish community” on Staten Island, N.Y., and eventually married Laura Pywell in February 1873 in Washington, D.C. A few months after the wedding, O’Sullivan went on another expedition to Arizona, making “his pivotal Canyon de Chelly pictures,” Regan writes.

Background: O’Sullivan surveys the American west

The U.S. Library of Congress Web site has background on the United States Geological Surveys, led by Lt. George Wheeler, which O’Sullivan was hired to photograph in 1871. “Hoping to test the limits of practical navigation by measuring the width and velocity of the Colorado River, Wheeler commanded a party of three boats for the month-long journey,” the LOC explains.

According to NPR, O’Sullivan was also hired to photograph another crucial Western survey “of the Fortieth Parallel.” Combined, the two surveys established photography as “a new and integral part of science documentary.” Nonetheless, O’Sullivan remained in relative obscurity “until around the 1970s, when there was a growing interest in landscape photography.”

Viewing O’Sullivan’s Work Online

The New York Public Library (NYPL) Digital Gallery features Early Landscape Photography of the American West, including work by Timothy O’Sullivan. According to the NYPL, it wasn’t until the 1860s that “practical paper photographs of the West” were executed. View O’Sullivan’s work in the NYPL Digital Gallery.

O’Sullivan’s photographs are also presented in a Flickr pool.

Reference: The settling of the American West; Lincoln era

The exploration and settling of the American west began well before the Civil War. Although it was slowed down by the War, it resumed again in earnest after the conflict ended. Learn about essential elements in the settlement of the West, like the transcontinental railroad, the fur trade, immigrants and the Gold Rush, for example.

Learn the history of America through primary sources and background articles in the U.S. History Web Guide.

PBS American Experience produced The Time of the Lincolns, which includes a section on “Americans at War” and the emergence of wartime photography. The site features brief bios of O’Sullivan and photographers Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner. Take particular note of the program’s other features, which can help paint a picture of the era in which O’Sullivan produced much of his work.

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