We know Timothy O’Sullivan almost entirely through his images. Almost nothing else is sure about him.
His most famous photographs are of the aftermath of battles in the Civil War, bodies strewn across the ground. But to photographers the name Timothy O’Sullivan evokes images of the American West, a land O’Sullivan traveled through in the late 1860s as part of the King Survey, exploring and mapping out the land and its resources along the railroad tracks that crossed that region, then mostly unknown to science.
O’Sullivan’s photographs were published as lithographs to illustrate parts of the seven-volume Report of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, the official report of the expedition. The second volume, containing many of his images, came out in 1877, eight years after the end of the King expedition.
That’s a long time to wait for your fame and glory. Maybe O’Sullivan didn’t wait.
In the September 1869 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, in the lead article, a man by the name of John Samson writes of an unnamed expedition in the West. The account centers on a photographer who is a member of that expedition and features quotes from the unnamed photographer and engravings of photographs made by that photographer.
The expedition is not specified and the photographer is anonymous but it is O’Sullivan, without a doubt, just back from the King Survey. The photographs are O’Sullivan’s from the King Survey, sometimes altered by the engraver. O’Sullivan may even be the author of the article, writing under a pseudonym.
These eleven pages offer the only direct connection we have to O’Sullivan outside of his photographs.
Reproduced here are those eleven pages from my own copy of Harpers. Zoom in to read the text and to admire the images.