Timothy H. O'Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840–1882)
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Image: 16.4 x 13.7 cm (6 7/16 x 5 3/8 in.)
Gilman Collection, Museum Purchase, 2005
Not on view
The usefulness of King's work for the government depended especially on his survey of the mining industry. Following the first season, the expedition did not return east but wintered over in Nevada--King and the three geologists at Virginia City, O'Sullivan and the others at Carson City. In February 1868, King asked O'Sullivan to come to Virginia City to document the activities at the Savage and the Gould and Curry mines on the Comstock Lode, the richest silver deposit in America. Working nine hundred feet underground by the light of a burning magnesium wire, O'Sullivan photographed the miners in tunnels, shafts, and lifts and in the aftermath of a cave-in. His pictures were not the first taken underground in America--photographs had been made in Mammoth Cave the year before--but they were the first to show the appalling conditions of miners at work. O'Sullivan always composed his photographs with care. When he worked on the battlefields of the Civil War he arranged limbs to create more telling pictures, and one time went so far as to drag a fallen soldier to a preferred site. In this series, too, he subjected reality to his critical method and artfully deployed the props. With one exception he chose not to depict the miners full length; instead, he cornered, truncated, and overpowered them beneath heavy masses of rock. (The shape at the right is the thigh and arm of a second miner with a sledge hammer.) The feeling of claustrophobia in this picture is further heightened by the rough timbers at the left and by O'Sullivan's unstable jerry-rigged arrangement of tools, which suggests the precarious nature of the men's labor. These highly uncomfortable pictures were not reproduced in "Mining Industry," the first volume of the expedition's official report to the government.
Inscription: Unverified: Printed in ink on mount, recto BC: "U.S. // Engineer Department. // Geological Exploration. // Fortieth Parallel. // T.H. O'Sullivan, Photographer"; stamped on mount, verso: "Slater Memorial Museum, Norwich, Conn."
[Charles Isaacs]; Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York, June 11, 1991