Details about the life of Irish American photographer Timothy O’Sullivan are sparse. He was either born in New York or emigrated with his parents at the age of 2 from Ireland in 1842. He died at the age of 42 from tuberculosis. He left few documents in his own hand, but the photographs he took during his relatively short life speak volumes.
O’Sullivan worked for Mathew Brady and with Alexander Gardner documenting the U.S. Civil War as a photographer in the field. His photographs populate just under half the pages of Gardner’s landmark work, the Photographic Sketch Book of the War. After the war, O’Sullivan would spend years traveling as the photographer for geographical and geological surveys as the U.S. government sought to document parts of the vast western part of the continent.
On his first survey, led by geologist Clarence King to document a swath of land along the Fortieth Parallel, O’Sullivan encountered the remote Shoshone Falls in Idaho. He was one of the first to capture this natural wonder with a camera – a difficult task thanks to its size and scale.
To better understand his talent and the type of photographer O’Sullivan was, let’s look at a few of his photos of the falls. The first photo conveys the vastness of the landscape, something O’Sullivan was especially good at doing with his photographs. The figure in the foreground, taking in the sight much as we are, provides a measure of scale.
In the photo below, O’Sullivan has approached the edge of the canyon to frame his shot, the entire frame filled with rushing water and mist rising from the river below. Where the falls were just a spot in the wilderness in the previous view, you can now almost hear the crashing water.
O’Sullivan has made his way down into the canyon to get this shot, and he stands at the river’s edge. Again, a lone figure stands at bottom right, providing a sense of human scale.
The photo below is titled: Shoshone Canyon and Falls. The moment it takes to figure out where the falls are is part of the wonder of this image for me. Study the photo and see if you can determine where O’Sullivan is, and where the falls are.
Yes, this photo is a view of the brink of the falls, taken from behind and above them. What appears at first to be a line across the river and a slightly blurry spot is, in fact, the edge of the over 200 foot high falls (higher than Niagara Falls) and the mist rising up from the river below. In the middle ground is part of the camp for the survey team, with several members of the team at center. The still river in the foreground offers no hint of the sheer drop-off.
O’Sullivan would photograph Shoshone Falls again in 1874 on a survey led by Lieut. George M. Wheeler. He took an even bolder approach to the falls, virtually getting our feet wet in this photo:
Shoshone Falls was the only site O’Sullivan photographed twice during his years on surveys of the West. The 1874 photos were his last of the season and, in fact, his last photos of the West.
- See Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs of the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, led by Clarence King, and including O’Sullivan’s 1868 photos of Shoshone Falls.
- Explore O’Sullivan’s photographs for the Geographical and Geological Surveys West of the One Hundredth Meridian, led by Lieut. George M. Wheeler. View O’Sullivan’s photos of Shoshone Falls from 1874.
- Watch a video, “Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan” where the authors of the book by the same title discuss O’Sullivan’s work. View the catalog record description of the book, Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan (Yale University Press, in association with the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2010).
- March is Irish American Heritage Month, which of course, includes St. Patrick’s Day on March 17. Enjoy free to use images related to Irish Americans from the Library of Congress collections.
- Read a guide to Irish American research resources at the Library of Congress.