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Timothy O’Sullivan was the first great photographer of the western landscape, but began his career as a cameraman for Mathew Brady, photographing the American Civil War.

Timothy O'Sullivan  Tertiary Conglomerates, Weber Valley, Ut, 1869

Timothy O’Sullivan Tertiary Conglomerates, Weber Valley, Ut, 1869

Which is a dramatic photograph, well seen, but only a few years before, O’Sullivan made a similar composition

Ruins of Richmond

Ruins of Richmond

And his use of figures in the landscape

Timothy O'Sullivan, Hot Sulphur Springs, Nevada, 1869

Timothy O’Sullivan, Hot Sulphur Springs, Nevada, 1869

which uses a figure of the same scale as a photo from a few years before

Timothy O'Sullivan, Harvest of Death, 1863

When Robert Adams wrote that early explorers considered the western space to be sublime, a redemptive landscape, he must have been referring to the experience of O’Sullivan, who saw (and smelled) the horror of the American Civil War.

For those of us born after Ansel, the western landscape conjures images of majestic pristine wilderness–but O’Sullivan is nearly a century older, with pictures full of silver mines and farms–he began photographing twenty years after gold was discovered in California, before Little Big Horn, but concurrent with the building of the transcontinental railroad.  Part of the success of O’Sullivan may have been due to his ability to travel into a bleak landscape and photograph, but then to get on the railroad back to civilization, to look at his photographs, in safety.  Another part of his working methods was his use of the colloidal plate, that required exposure and development of the negative while wet, requiring the need for a portable darkroom in the field, but providing  instant feedback of an image.


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