The Media Today

Q&A: Robert Sullivan on contextualizing the history of the West

May 15, 2024
Iceberg Canyon, Colorado River Looking Above. c.1871, from the Library of Congress. Photo: Timothy O'Sullivan.

Timothy O’Sullivan is among the most famous photographers you’ve never heard of. His photos of the US Civil War have endured as its defining images, including a picture of soldiers’ bodies strewn across the battlefield at Gettysburg in 1863—titled A Harvest of Death—that brought the raw face of war home to the American public. After the South surrendered, O’Sullivan continued to work with the military, but as a freelancer for the US Geological Survey sent to assess America’s western territories. He took photos of larger-than-life western landscapes as well as geology and Indigenous peoples, and documented for Congress both the attractive and exploitative possibilities of those environments and cultures. 

When O’Sullivan entered the West, “he wasn’t a former war photographer at all,” Robert Sullivan, an author and freelance journalist, writes in the new book Double Exposure: Resurveying the West with Timothy O’Sullivan. “On the contrary, he was still in a war zone, covering a series of wars that are still raging today.” Despite the outsize impact of his work, relatively little is known about O’Sullivan himself. Sullivan, the author, quotes Doris Ostrander Dawdy, a historian who wrote that “the paucity of reliable information on O’Sullivan makes him a poor subject for biographical treatment, leaving writers to engage in speculation.” 

And so Sullivan did not write a biography, even if he did include a tremendous account of O’Sullivan’s life pulled from primary sources adjacent to the photographer. Instead, Sullivan (who is not himself a photographer) uses O’Sullivan’s images as a vehicle to “resurvey” the West—a term he uses to mean revisiting, contextualizing, and seeking more relevant and accurate understandings of landscapes that O’Sullivan photographed in what are now Nevada, Utah, California, and Idaho. In doing so, he also resurveys America’s relationship with the West, one that often obfuscates the violence and greed that drove western incorporation, and its ongoing impact on culture, the environment, and—especially—Indigenous people. His book aims to “reframe not just the American landscape but the stories we tell ourselves about America, the things we believe and feel.”

Recently, I spoke with Sullivan about the wars still being fought today, the importance of contextualizing American history, and the ongoing work of resurveying our past. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

KL: Who is Timothy O’Sullivan? How did you come across him? 

RS: Many of his photographs of the Civil War are iconic; if you google “Civil War” and images, you’re pretty much bound to see something that he photographed. A year or two after meeting my wife—who is a photographer—we moved to Oregon. I was driving all around the West on assignments, and these landscape photos kept coming up. Contemporary photographers would say, What was up with this guy? These are fascinating images. But O’Sullivan left no notes, no journals. It would be ridiculous to try to write something about him; I thought, Stay away from this guy. Then one day, about twelve years ago, I said, I’ve got to do something. I’ll just make it a very short book. It’ll take me six months to write it. And it took a whole lot longer than I would ever have imagined. But that’s the thing: you make what you make when you make what you make. That’s how I think of Timothy O’Sullivan. We really can’t know what he was thinking when he made some of these images, but you can see where he’s been and what he’s seen and say, Okay, he was exposed to a lot. 

Group of officers, headquarters, Army of the Potomac [Culpeper, Virginia]. c. 1863. From the Library of Congress. Photo: Timothy O’Sullivan.
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O’Sullivan was also a photographer for several US geological surveys, and you refer to your work in the book as a resurvey. What does that mean? 

O’Sullivan was a surveyor, and so I’m able to resurvey his work and ask, Why do we think of the West or North America or the Great Basin [a geographic area spanning Nevada, California, and Utah] this way and not another way? What are the lenses we use to get here? Sometimes I wish I had been a surveyor. It’s a really complicated thing. It’s a loaded term. I wrote a book about Henry David Thoreau, who made his living as a surveyor. In fact, he was just a freelancer—a term I love and cling to—but he’s able to use terms like “survey” or “surveyor” in wonderfully back-and-forth ways. He’s able to say, Well, what is a surveyor? Are you surveying land for profit? Are you surveying the community to see how it works and to check its health? What is a survey? There’s a lot of play in that term. Because I’m not a photographer, I’m going with the skill set of a reporter and, hopefully, if I’m reading enough poetry, maybe I’m infused with some skills that allow me to describe how a place feels, not just how it looks. 

You explain how few credible traces O’Sullivan left—no letters, diaries, and hardly any documents—despite his outsize influence on photography. Could you explain how you reported on such a mystery?  

I just kept thinking there must be a relationship between O’Sullivan as a war photographer and him as a western photographer. In this case, the reporting is—to use a made-up term—“re-emplacement”; it’s not reenactment, but getting yourself to the place, thinking about the place, and letting the place speak to you. Then [you] do the map work using the photos: Where’s the watershed? Where is the water coming from? What are the resources that people extracted and sold? What are the resources that people used to survive here? How did the community build here? How did it get broken, hurt, or challenged? 

I’m cursed by the fact that my first full-time job after college was at the North Jersey Herald News and then later the Paterson News. I was assigned to rural New Jersey. Some readers will say there’s no such thing as rural New Jersey, but in fact there is. I covered three or four sleepy towns, and I had to write and file two stories every day. There’s no such thing as nothing to write about. A number of different poets talk about being a space explorer—a visitor from another planet to your planet—and that’s just how I work. What’s going on here? What is being overlooked on a regular basis? 

For someone with so little recorded history, you found a number of connected primary sources. 

Each region has its primary, hallowed describer. There’s a classic text—or there’s, like, Fremont came through and declared there to be nothing here. In the case of the Great Basin, even Mark Twain said, These people are nothing, which is sad because he can really stand up for people. So when you run into somebody who thought about reassessing or reevaluating, you’re really, really happy. 

Doris Ostrander Dawdy is an incredible person. Likewise, there’s a woman named Margaret Wheat—she’s writing as a white colonizer, but would appear to understand the violence that has been done in the Great Basin. I mean literal violence—because that’s where we test nuclear weapons, and build faux Middle Eastern cities and practice guerrilla warfare in them—but also violence to communities by breaking them up. So here are people who themselves have resurveyed. I’m trying to show that the surveys never end, that everybody’s surveying always, always, always. That’s what we’re called to do. You have to think about where the story’s coming from. 

You suggest that O’Sullivan never really stopped doing war photography. After the Civil War, what was the next war he photographed? 

He never stopped being a war photographer in the sense that there was violence enacted on the communities that the surveys moved through: either by the surveyors, or the way the surveyors framed the land, or the people who were there. Or surveying so that more mining could happen. There were forests cut and put underground to build out the underground spaces for miners. The world was being turned inside out. This violence is what O’Sullivan was photographing—the violence of industrial workers underground who look like casualties in pictures. 

When he comes back at the end of his career he makes his second trip to Shoshone Falls, on the Snake River [in Idaho]. When he gets back, the railroads have expanded. There’s a great depression—railroad executives are shooting at striking workers—and it’s the beginning of a chain of events that will lead to armories being built in cities to hold down any resistant populace. Likewise, the invention of fracking, which is a western invention, is brought back to the East in the Appalachian Mountains. You get to see this longer war—this arguably unending war—that is the United States. It requires reclaiming and extraction. What really makes the US a mind-boggling place is that people are able to find ways to resist. 

What frame or context would you suggest a journalist use when reporting on the American West? 

If you’re a reporter from the East and you’re going west, you have to think about what that means—how are you not taking something? How are you not being extractive? These are hard things. You have to stop thinking of the East as separate from the West, or the West as separate from the East. The processes that made the West came from the East, encouraged by western financiers. The things that incorporated the United States—that made the whole continent—are the forces of the whole empire. How do we survey without doing damage? 

I want to make it clear that after you “resurvey,” the first thing you do is start researching again. It’s a never-ending process, and you’re lucky if you get to feel something that you didn’t feel before. I’m trying to make you feel a couple things, maybe with paragraphs and sentences that have a rhythm or a pace. If O’Sullivan uses framing that helps us see what’s outside his frame—which I think he does—then my goal is to try to use reporting, research, and on-site investigations to orchestrate my findings in a way that makes you experience something that you thought you knew slightly differently. It’s a big ask. How do you do reporting—because that’s really what reading, researching, and visiting is—in such a way that you build an expertise, but that you don’t let yourself think you’re an expert? This is really hard. But that’s why reporting is such a beautiful endeavor, because when it’s done right, it’s helping communities see their past and move forward in good health. 

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, Google laid out plans to integrate Gemini, its AI engine, into its search product, a process that will, among other things, soon provide users with text summaries in response to queries. Google says that these summaries will link out to other websites and claims that those links will “get more clicks” than other search results—but CNN’s Oliver Darcy reports that many publishers are skeptical, fearing that Google’s changes will reduce traffic to their websites, and thus their revenue. “The little traffic we get today will be further diminished, and with a dominant search engine that’s cementing its market power, we once again have to adhere to their terms,” the CEO of the News/Media Alliance, a media trade group, said. “This time with a product that directly competes with our content, using our content to fuel it. This is a perverse twist on ‘innovation.’”
  • In media-jobs news, Pamela Drucker Mann, Condé Nast’s chief revenue officer, is also leaving the company, after nineteen years. Elsewhere, Sam Feist—who has worked for CNN for more than thirty years, most recently as Washington bureau chief—is leaving the network to become the CEO of C-SPAN. Ken Armstrong, a Pulitzer-winning long-form investigative journalist at ProPublica, is joining Bloomberg, where he will report and edit stories “as a player-coach” while working with reporters to develop ideas. And The Guardian’s Martin Pengelly is joining the Daily Beast as Washington bureau chief. (We wrote last week about his knack for scooping juicy nuggets from politicians’ books.)

ICYMI: NATO bombed a Chinese embassy. Twenty-five years on, the battle for the narrative continues.

Kevin Lind is a CJR fellow.