FRAMING THE WEST
Litle is known is known of O’Sullivan’s biography. He was born in Ireland in 1840 and came to the United States with his parents two years later. His family settled in Staten Island and he is thought to have learned his trade from the famed portrait photographer Matthew Brady. By the 1860s he was working in Boston with Alexander Gardneer, documenting the cvil war. He spent much of the conflict in the field with the army of the Ptomac, and is best known for his photographs of dead soldiers on the field at Gettysburg.
After the war, he worked as a photographer for two of the most ambitious geographical surveys of the nineteenth century. He traversed the mountain and desert regions of the western United States under the command of Clarence King and Lt. George M. Wheeler for six seasons between 1867 and 1874.
O'Sullivan developed a forthright and rigorous style in response to the landscapes of the American West. He created a body of work that was without precedent in its visual and emotional complexity, while simultaneously meeting the needs of scientific investigation and western expansion.
“I think that the camera itself, its lens and its ground glass, accounts in part for the modern look of some 19th century photographs,including many of O’Sullivan’s. There is an abstracting activity in the use of this tool. One studies light and dark shapes projected on to a flat rectangle upside down and recognises a picture.”
Mark Rudell On O’Sullivan’s photographs of the Colorado River expedition:
“There is a drama in the expression of space, it’s about being able to position yourself within a larger view of the landscape and then organising the information in a pictorial way that is compelling, we’re seeing the landscape as unified, but also as dissected: how it is built up vertically but also how big it is vertically.”