Take a look at how small we are in the grand scheme of things. At a time when people fantasized about transcontinental railroads and nation building, Timothy H. O’Sullivan captured the enormity of the physical world and the tiny little men living upon it without the slightest hint of sentimentality.
Maybe his experience capturing the bloated dead of a generation of young men seared the notion into his brain that we are here for just moments and our big dreams are dwarfed by creation–or maybe he was just a tough Irish guy.
Here is the man who brought us some of the best, most unromantic photographs of the Civil War and The American West. Tim was great to have around from an early age. Brimming with confidence and machismo he apprenticed with Matthew Brady who happened to live nearby in Staten Island before the Civil War. At the age of 21 the young lad went off to war as an “operator” or hired hand photographer who also happened to be amazingly talented.
After the war he went west on geological expeditions–sometimes with a Yale dandy and sometimes with a military man–impressing both. Rugged, brave and fun he kept the romance in his courtship and marriage to Laura Virginia Pywell and kept the bleak, huge west and its inhabitants as they really were–formidable, inhospitable and sadly defeated in the case of the Indians.
I want a happy ending here yet once again death is always sad no matter how it’s done. Dear Tim and his wife Laura after losing their only child as a stillborn contracted tuberculosis. After the geological surveys Tim had trouble finding work. He applied for a job and all of his many friends sent recommendations that give us a glimpse into his special appeal. He got the job but had to quit five months later. He died soon after his wife at the age of 42. The tough guy couldn’t escape death, but his pictures do.
BEAUTIFUL SMITHSONIAN VIDEO:
Pictures Library of Congress