Timothy O’Sullivan—”The photographer” speaks

We have Timothy O’Sullivan’s work, or at least much of it, and we have a few words in his own hand on a handful of letters and documents, and we have mention of him in the diaries of others who accompanied him on the exploratory surveys–but not much else.

Unless you count the article–essentially a profile–in the September 1869 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine.

I first saw mention of this article in James Horan’s, Timothy O’Sullivan: America’s Forgotten Photographer. A journalist, Horan quotes a few passages from the article, then makes extensive use of it to fill in many of the gaps in O’Sullivan’s experiences in the West. The article is eleven pages in length with thirteen engravings showing images from the explorations of the survey party. Most of the images show people–a photographer, a surveyor–but the real attraction are the glimpses they offer of the unpeopled western parts of the country.

O’Sullivan’s name does not appear in the article–he is just “the photographer”–but those are his images, with only slight changes in the transformation to etchings. And John Sampson, the author of the piece,  quotes extensively from “the photographer’s” words and experiences. It certainly reads as if it is the product of a detailed interview with O’Sullivan. Indeed, it is hard to see that it could be anything else.

Why not mention O’Sullivan by name? The most obvious possibility is that the article appeared in 1869, a year before the first volume from the King expedition would be published and ten years before the last. The volume of “descriptive geology” would come out in 1877. One can invent many plausible scenarios from there.

But whatever the circumstances of its origin, this is far and away the clearest glimpse we can have of O’Sullivan, save for the images themselves.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine is archived online by Cornell University and you can find “Photographs from the High Rockies” there.

The etchings don’t come through in the pdf nearly as nice as they look in real life and so I have made snapshot copies of them from my one hundred and forty-three year old issue.

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