Shining a Light on Mystery Civil War Photographer Who Took Gruesome Images

A historical photo showing soldiers standing and working in a trench during wartime on the left. On the right, a black and white portrait of a man with a bushy mustache, seated, wearing a suit, and looking to the side.
Mystery Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan (right). A photo he took of captured Confederate fortifications in Virginia, 1864 (left).

Very little is known about American Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan — the man who took the haunting A Harvest of Death photograph in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg — but a new book attempts to shine a light on him.

The basic facts of O’Sullivan’s life are that he was born in Ireland, or at least had Irish parents who moved to New York City and learned his trade from Mathew Brady before he followed the Union Army into the field where he took some of the best-known images of the Civil War as they fought against Confederate soldiers.

A bearded man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and 19th-century attire is sitting on a large rock in an outdoor setting. He is holding a sketchpad and appears to be drawing or writing. The background features large rocks and foliage.
Alfred Waud sketching at the Battle of Gettysburg.
A black and white photograph of a towering rock formation with multiple vertical columns and rugged surfaces. The ground is covered with sparse vegetation, and the sky is clear with no clouds visible. The landscape appears arid and expansive.
Inscription Rock, El Morro National Monument, 1873.

After the war had finished in 1865, he set forth into the American West as part of a Geological Exploration and was one of the first to document the prehistoric ruins and pueblo villages of the Southwest. Bear in mind that he used a wet plate camera which meant lugging a nearly 2 foot by 2 foot camera into the Wild West along with a mobile darkroom for instant processing.

He died back east of tuberculosis at age 42. His work influenced Ansel Adams who played a major role in O’Sullivan’s legacy, describing his work as “surrealistic and disturbing.”

An older man with disheveled hair is sitting in a wooden rocking chair in front of a weathered door. He is wearing a light-colored shirt and pants, and is barefoot. A rifle is propped up against the wall beside him. The setting appears to be rustic and outdoors.
John Burns, veteran of the War of 1812, and a hero of the Battle of Gettysburg, 1863.
An ancient cliff dwelling is nestled into the side of a steep, massive rock face. There are multiple stone structures, some partially in shadow. The rock wall above the dwellings shows vertical striations, giving a textured appearance. Sparse vegetation is visible below.
White House Ruins, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, 1873.

Writing a Biography on a Ghost

While O’Sullivan’s visual work is well known, his personal story is not. He apparently wrote nothing in his life; no accounts of his experiences in the bloody Civil War, no letters home — despite being away for years and years.

To write a book on him is a daunting task even for the most dogged of scholars, but author Robert Sullivan has done just that in his recent tome Double Exposure: Resurveying the West with Timothy O’Sullivan, America’s Most Mysterious War Photographer.

A black-and-white vintage photograph of a man seated on a wooden chair. He has short, wavy hair and a mustache and is wearing a formal suit jacket over a shirt with a bow tie. His hands rest on his legs, and he is gazing slightly to his left.
Photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, circa 1871–1874.
A sepia-toned photograph shows five men standing on and around a large log structure in a wooded area. One man stands on top holding a long pole, while others are positioned at various levels on the logs. The photo is set in a clearing with dense foliage in the background.
Elk Mountain (Maryland) signal tower, 1862.

O’Sullivan’s work with the Union Army saw him take mundane photos of landscapes that could be potential battle sites, but for publishers, he would photograph fallen soldiers and cadaver-strewn battlefields.

Per The Economist, the author, Sullivan, argues that O’Sullivan inverted expectations: A Harvest of Death, for example, shows dead soldiers lying prone in awful detail while a living soldier sits on his horse off in the hazy background.

The newspaper notes that O’Sullivan once photographed Ulysses S. Grant and his officer from up high on a church steeple, a position that perhaps would have been taken by a Confederate sharpshooter.

A sepia-toned photograph of five people fishing along the bank of a river. A steel railway bridge spans the river in the background. The surrounding area is filled with bare trees and bushes, indicating a barren landscape.
Orange and Alexandria Railroad Bridge Across, Bull Run, Virginia, 1862.

The cover of the book "Double Exposure" by Robert Sullivan features two sepia-toned photographs of a mountainous landscape reflected in a body of water. The text reads "Double Exposure: Resurveying the West with Timothy O’Sullivan, America’s Most Mysterious War Photographer.

Double Exposure is avaible via Macmillan and Amazon.

Image credits: Photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons