Author Robert Sullivan speaks on his forthcoming book, Double Exposure: Resurveying the West with Timothy O’Sullivan, America’s Most Mysterious War Photographer (FSG, 2024).
Timothy O’Sullivan is America’s most famous war photographer. You know his work even if you don’t know his name: A Harvest of Death, taken at Gettysburg, is an icon of the Civil War. He was also among the first photographers to elevate what was then a trade to the status of fine art. The images of the American West he made after the war, while traveling with the surveys led by Clarence King and George Wheeler, display a prescient awareness of what photography would become; years later, Ansel Adams would declare his work “surrealistic and disturbing.”
At the same time, we know very little about O’Sullivan himself. Nor do we know — really know — much more about the landscapes he captured. Robert Sullivan set off in pursuit of these two enigmas, and documented his own road trip across the West in search of the places, many long forgotten or paved over, that O’Sullivan pictured. The changes wrought on the land were already under way in the 1860s and '70s, and were a continuation of the Civil War by other means. Sullivan, like O’Sullivan in his magisterial photos of geysers and hot springs, exposes a fissure in the American landscape itself.
Robert Sullivan is a Short-Term Whitney J. Oates Fellow in the Humanities Council and the Department of English in the fall of 2023, and the author of numerous books, including Rats, The Meadowlands, A Whale Hunt, The Thoreau You Don’t Know and My American Revolution. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, A Public Space and Vogue. He is the recipient of a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship and teaches creative writing at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. In April, FSG will publish his latest book, Double Exposure: Resurveying the West with Timothy O’Sullivan, America’s Most Mysterious War Photographer.
- Department of English
- Humanities Council