Picture This: Timothy O’Sullivan and the Shoshone Falls

Timothy O'Sullivan and the Shoshone Falls
By Kristi Finefield

Mr. Sullivan [i.e. O'Sullivan]. Photo by Wheeler & Angerman, circa 1873. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.31600

Mr. Sullivan [i.e. O'Sullivan]. Photo by Wheeler & Angerman, circa 1873. https://ift.tt/2ue3cgR

Details about the life of Irish American photographer Timothy O'Sullivan are sparse. He was either born in New York or emigrated with his parents at the age of 2 from Ireland in 1842. He died at the age of 42 from tuberculosis. He left few documents in his own hand, but the photographs he took during his relatively short life speak volumes.

O'Sullivan worked for Mathew Brady and with Alexander Gardner documenting the U.S. Civil War as a photographer in the field. His photographs populate just under half the pages of Gardner's landmark work, the Photographic Sketch Book of the War. After the war, O'Sullivan would spend years traveling as the photographer for geographical and geological surveys as the U.S. government sought to document parts of the vast western part of the continent.

On his first survey, led by geologist Clarence King to document a swath of land along the Fortieth Parallel, O'Sullivan encountered the remote Shoshone Falls in Idaho. He was one of the first to capture this natural wonder with a camera – a difficult task thanks to its size and scale.

To better understand his talent and the type of photographer O'Sullivan was, let's look at a few of his photos of the falls. The first photo conveys the vastness of the landscape, something O'Sullivan was especially good at doing with his photographs. The figure in the foreground, taking in the sight much as we are, provides a measure of scale.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11921

Shoshone Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. https://ift.tt/2W65nPL

In the photo below, O'Sullivan has approached the edge of the canyon to frame his shot, the entire frame filled with rushing water and mist rising from the river below. Where the falls were just a spot in the wilderness in the previous view, you can now almost hear the crashing water.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11925

Shoshone Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. https://ift.tt/2VZxcch

O'Sullivan has made his way down into the canyon to get this shot, and he stands at the river's edge. Again, a lone figure stands at bottom right, providing a sense of human scale.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11926

Shoshone Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. https://ift.tt/2VVVELM

The photo below is titled: Shoshone Canyon and Falls. The moment it takes to figure out where the falls are is part of the wonder of this image for me. Study the photo and see if you can determine where O'Sullivan is, and where the falls are.

Shoshone Cañon and Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.11929

Shoshone Cañon and Falls, Idaho. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan, 1868. https://ift.tt/2VZxdwR

Yes, this photo is a view of the brink of the falls, taken from behind and above them. What appears at first to be a line across the river and a slightly blurry spot is, in fact, the edge of the over 200 foot high falls (higher than Niagara Falls) and the mist rising up from the river below. In the middle ground is part of the camp for the survey team, with several members of the team at center. The still river in the foreground offers no hint of the sheer drop-off.

O'Sullivan would photograph Shoshone Falls again in 1874 on a survey led by Lieut. George M. Wheeler. He took an even bolder approach to the falls, virtually getting our feet wet in this photo:

Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho View across top of the falls. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.10072

Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho View across top of the falls. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan. https://ift.tt/2CgNuGr

Shoshone Falls was the only site O'Sullivan photographed twice during his years on surveys of the West. The 1874 photos were his last of the season and, in fact, his last photos of the West.

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Published March 15, 2019 at 01:25PM
Read more on https://loc.gov
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