Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Timothy H. O’Sullivan



There is little information available on the personal life of Timothy O’Sullivan. He was born in either New York or Ireland in 1840, and there is no record of his marriage or if he had children. O’Sullivan did not leave a written history, although he left a magnificent photographic record.

Therein lies another paradox; in many of O’Sullivan’s photographs, he would incorporate a human figure in the composition, but there is only one photograph that is unquestionably of O’Sullivan.

As a young man, perhaps fifteen, he became an apprentice to Mathew Brady in his New York studio. At the beginning of the Civil War, O’Sullivan was working in Brady’s Washington, D.C. studio under Alexander Gardner. It was Brady’s goal to photograph the war. Gardner, O’Sullivan and a number of other qualified photographers were actively involved. Because of Brady’s insistence that his name be on all of the photographs and his refusal to give credit to the maker, a rift developed. In 1863 Gardner and O’Sullivan left Brady and joined forces to record the war. O’Sullivan photographed every aspect of the Civil War: military men in camp, swimming, relaxing, in battle, wounded and dead. He photographed the landscape, bridges during construction and after destruction, and battlefields littered with the bodies of dead soldiers.

After the war, Gardner published a book entitled Sketchbook of the Civil War; almost half the photographs were taken by O’Sullivan. In 1867 he was given the position of photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey. His first

expedition, headed by Clarence King, was a civil exploration of the land along the 40th parallel. It was on this trip that O’Sullivan became the first to photograph men working underground in a mineshaft. He used a magnesium-flare as his light source.

O’Sullivan’s next assignment came in 1870 as the official photographer to a military expedition commanded by Lieutenant Commander Thomas O. Selfridge. The purpose of the expedition was to search for a canal route through the Isthmus of Darien (Panama). Although he did bring back many beautiful photographs from the area, photographic conditions were extremely poor, because of the heavy rain and dense jungle growth.

In 1871 O’Sullivan joined the United States Geographical Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian led by Lt. George Wheeler. The purpose was to survey the land for possible future use and to gain a consensus of the Native American population. Their journey up to the Colorado River was treacherous and difficult, but O’Sullivan managed to expose images of the Grand Canyon that are still important today. His early photograph of the ruins of Canyon de Chelly is considered a classic.

O’Sullivan’s photographs are valued for their rich beauty, but the difficulty of the times should also be considered. He used a wet plate technique, with cameras up to20x24-inches in size. Glass plates had to be prepared before exposure and process immediately after. All the equipment needed to accomplish the feat, including a dark room of sorts, had to be purchased, organized, paced, unpacked, packed again, hauled over mountains, across deserts, through jungles, rowed up rivers, and floated down rapids. There were not many photographers then (or now) capable of producing such a memorable volume of exceptional work.

On November 6, 1880 upon recommendation of many his colleagues, including Mathew Brady, Timothy O’Sullivan was appointed official photographer for the U.S. Treasury Department. Less than five months later, suffering from tuberculosis, he returned to his father’s house on Staten Island. Timothy O’Sullivan died January 14, 1882; he was forty-two years old.

By Vi Whitmire For IPHF


Share history with the world at IPHF.

Get involved