Timothy H. O’Sullivan is considered one of the most important photographers of the American West. In the 19th century, O’Sullivan—carrying a heavy, large-format camera and boxes
of glass-plate negatives that were
developed in the field—created a
large and distinguished body of work. The Library of Congress holds more than 900 O’Sullivan images in the Prints and Photographs Division.
Ninety-three items from the Library’s collection are displayed in a major exhibition “Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan” from Feb. 12 to May 9, at the Smithsonian Institution’s American Art Museum, Eighth and F Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C.
“Framing the West” is the first major exhibition devoted to this important photographer in almost three decades. It features more than 120 photographs and stereographs by O’Sullivan, including a notable group of King survey photographs from the Library of Congress that rarely have been on public display since 1876.
An exhibition catalog, co-published by the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Yale University Press, is available for $60 from the Library of Congress Shop (www.loc.gov/shop/) and in bookstores nationwide. The 272-page catalog—the first major publication on O’Sullivan in more than 30 years—offers a formal interpretation of O’Sullivan’s work and assesses his influence in the field of photography. It includes essays by Toby Jurovics, the exhibition curator, who is the curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum; Carol M. Johnson, curator of photography at the Library of Congress; Glenn Willumson, associate professor at the University of Florida; and William F. Stapp, an independent scholar.
O’Sullivan (1840-1882) began his career as an apprentice to Mathew Brady. He joined Alexander Gardner when Gardner opened a branch of the Brady studio in Washington, D.C. and photographed American Civil War battlefields. When Gardner opened his own studio in 1863, O’Sullivan followed. Forty-four of O’Sullivan’s photographs were included in Gardner’s landmark album “Photographic Sketch Book of the War,” the first published collection of Civil War photographs and a highlight of the Library’s collection in the Prints and Photographs Division.
O’Sullivan’s experience photographing in the field earned him a position as photographer for the first governmental survey of the American West after the Civil War, the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, which was directed by Clarence King from 1867 to 1872. He also served as photographer for the U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian, directed by George Wheeler from 1871 to 1874.
According to Jurovics, “O’Sullivan developed a forthright and rigorous style in response to the landscapes of the American West, returning to Washington, D.C. with hundreds of photographs that revealed an artist whose reach far surpassed the demands of practical documentation. He created a body of work that was without precedent in its visual and emotional complexity.”
“Framing the West: The Survey Photographs of Timothy H. O’Sullivan” is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in cooperation with the Library of Congress, with support from the Robert S. and Grayce B. Kerr Foundation, the William W. Parker Fund, Paul Sack, the Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund, Michael Wilson and the Smithsonian’s Scholarly Studies Program.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum, located above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station, is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free. For further information, call (202) 633-7970 or visit www.americanart.si.edu.
To view digitized photographs by O’Sullivan, visit the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, www.loc.gov/pictures/.