Thursday, 17 September 2015

Timothy O'Sullivan - Photographs of the Wild West

It is somewhat rare for the present writer to venture into the sepia nostalgia of the old American West. He is far more interested and more at ease in the settlement of New Holland and has no enduring fascination for the rugged contours of the American frontier as do others. He has friends and acquaintances, for instance, who love the western as a film genre - a consuming fetish on their part - and who are thus moved to view that era and land as almost mythic; he does not usually share that indulgence, although these days he admits that the fascination is not entirely without basis. 

Recently he encountered the quite stunning photography of a Mr. Timothy O'Sullivan, a pioneering photographer who travelled throughout the Old West with a horse-drawn dark room and who photographed the people and the landscapes of that time and place. He is best known as a photographic observer of the American Civil War - his most celebrated picture is the 'Harvest of Death' showing the Union dead at Gettysburg - but his visual accounts of the territories of Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona and New Mexico, through which he journeyed in the late 1860s and 70s, are profound. These are remarkable pictures. It is hard not to be moved by the grandeur of the harsh landscape. Amongst other things he provides a visual record of the Indian peoples of those regions. 

Mr. O'Sullivan died of tuberculosis at the age of forty-two in the year 1882.

Here are a few examples of his surviving plates. For enlarged views, click on each picture. 

This picture shows the wagon of the photographer, his dark room and developing equipment in the rear of the wagon. Thus equipped, and with only rudimentary comforts, Mr. O'Sullivan traversed the harsh deserts and landscapes of the Western frontiers alone. 

The junction of Green and Yampah Canyons, Utah, 1872

Pyramid Lake, Nevada

A view of Santa Fe.

Inscription Rock, New Mexico, 1873

Shoshone Falls, Idaho

Canyon de Chelly, Arizona. Readers will note the tents in the foreground which provide a sense of scale.

Gold Hill, Nevada, 1867

The Pah-Ute. 

The Fortieth Parallel Survey Team, 1867

Formations in the Washakie Badlands, Wyoming, 1872

View of the White House, the Ancestral Pueblo Native American (Anasazi) ruins,
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona,  taken in 1873.


Harper McAlpine Black

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