Double exposure Resurveying the West with Timothy O'Sullivan, America's most mysterious war photographer

Robert Sullivan, 1963-

Book - 2024

"A personal exploration of the history of the American West through the work of the nineteenth-century photographer Timothy O'Sullivan"--

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2nd Floor New Shelf 778.936/O'Sullivan (NEW SHELF) Due Jul 1, 2024
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2024.
Main Author
Robert Sullivan, 1963- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
432 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 403-430).
  • I. Fissure
  • II. Into the Great Basin
  • III. Mining
  • IV. To the Great Salt Lake
  • V. Between Oceans
  • VI. Explorations
  • VII. Record of Conquest
  • VIII. Lost
  • IX. Return to the Falls
  • Coda: Staten Island
  • Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
Review by Booklist Review

The life and works of a celebrated nineteenth-century photographer prompt reflection on America's past and present and the fraught connections between place and historical memory. Known for both his Civil War photographs and dramatic landscapes taken on later surveys of the West, Timothy O'Sullivan apprenticed under luminary Matthew Brady and inspired Ansel Adams, among others. Using the wet plate collodion process, a fussy and laborious method for capturing images, O'Sullivan created photographs that helped a young country see remote parts of itself even as they frequently posed more questions than they answered. Despite the author's protests that this is not a biography, O'Sullivan's personal and artistic trajectory becomes the focus of this expansive, ruminative work. But just as the interesting detail of the photographer's Gettysburg landscape, A Harvest of Death, may not be the bloated corpses in the foreground but rather the "dark figures in the background either oblivious or watching," much of what Sullivan (My American Revolution, 2012) wants to discuss lies closer to the edge of the frame. He's interested in context--the Indian Wars, environmental degradation, fissures both geological and societal. Also, with a rare and frightening nerve disorder, he's anxious about his own future. The result is a compelling, haunted work of living history.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Journalist Sullivan (Rats) blends memoir, biography, and history for a meditative if diffuse portrait of celebrated 19th-century photographer Timothy O'Sullivan (1840--1882) and the changing landscape of the American West. Entranced by the pictures of landscapes, towns, and mines that O'Sullivan captured on surveying expeditions in the 1870s, Sullivan set out to "resurvey surveys" by visiting the sites of some of his most well-known shots. Though the paucity of available biographical information makes O'Sullivan an enigmatic subject, Sullivan fills in the gaps with detailed accounts of the expeditions, describing, among other episodes, boats sinking in Colorado River and a tyrannical expedition leader who has a Native American boy tortured after a mule goes missing. Sullivan's own presence in the narrative adds dark, nervous tension, whether he's "feel useless and down" after spilling coffee on himself at a motel or weathering a terrifying nerve injury, and his photographic analyses are rich and evocative ("The accuracy in O'Sullivan's is in the way it illustrates how the dune... envelops a person as if they were afloat in a creamy white sea," he writes about an image of Nevada's Sand Mountain). Unfortunately, Sullivan's attempts to reckon with America's legacy of slavery, dispossession, and environmental destruction feel less focused. Though there's plenty to admire, this doesn't quite stick the landing. Photos. Agent: Eric Simonoff, WME. (Apr.)

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A fascinating account of a crucial photographer of westward expansion and a reckoning with the colonization of the American West. Timothy O'Sullivan (1840-1882) was a legendary photographer of the Civil War who also traveled across the West on several surveys as the expedition photographer. The resulting images, many included in this book, are haunting. They portray stark landscapes, mining, and the colonization of the West at a time when violence and desperation were high: "The West--where citizenship was disputed, where sovereignty was devalued or ignored--would become a battle site, and not just with guns but with miners and dams, with vigilantes and nativists, with ranches and land grabs made by Congress-backed corporations." O'Sullivan's photos document a time when Indigenous land rights were trampled, treaties ignored, and white settlers scrambled to survive. It's a fascinating and essential era in American history, a period that historian Richard Maxwell Brown has called the "Western Civil War of Incorporation." Sullivan chronicles his visits to several key locations in O'Sullivan's photos, exploring the violence wrought on the landscape and people. These sites include Death Valley, where O'Sullivan developed photos in a mule-drawn ambulance he converted into a dark room; Panama, where he photographed the dense jungle before the construction of the canal; and various mines, where he took the first known underground photo, risking the flare of magnesium to do so. Sullivan's research is meticulous and his storytelling engaging. O'Sullivan is an intriguing figure, but what is most fascinating is the author's examination of westward expansion as a kind of war of both arms and ideas. The photos, writes the author, allow us "to reframe not just the American landscape but the stories we tell ourselves about America, the things we believe and feel." A riveting, highly valuable reexamination of the West, compelling to anyone interested in its history. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.