An Irishman Captures the West

Image

Timothy O’Sullivan, who in 1872 photographed the grand, sweeping vista seen above, was of Irish ancestry.   As a teenager he worked in the studio of the legendary 19th century photographer Mathew Brady, who is accepted by American scholars as the father of photo-journalism.  (In my third novel, The Outcasts, Mathew Brady‘s photographic work is featured prominently as a reminder of the overwhelming loss of the men and boys who fought and died in the Civil War.)

A veteran of the war, O’Sullivan turned his hand to photographing the battlefield horrors in the first few years of the conflict before setting out on his cross-continental expeditions.

Using a box camera, he worked with Government teams as they explored thousands of miles of uncharted land. O’Sullivan was one of the first photographers to capture images of the Native American population along with an accompanying team of artists, fellow photographers, scientists and soldiers as they explored Colorado, Nevada and Utah.  He drove a horse-drawn dark room wagon so that he could develop his images as they were taken. He spent seven years exploring the landscape and thousands of pictures have survived from his travels.

O’Sullivan died from tuberculosis at the age of 42 in 1882, a few years after the project had finished.  His work, viewed by thousands, was largely responsible for many settlers risking the hardships of the West to begin anew after the devastation of the Civil War.

For earlier posts, see below:

The Rock Star and The Alamo

Because my third novel, The Outcasts, is set mostly in Texas—the state where I grew up—the anniversary of Texas Independence has made me think about how large the myths of Texas loom world wide.  Stories of cowboys, hard-broke horses, man-killers and women who had no other choice but to make their living between the sheets to survive, have been told and retold in novels, films, songs and TV.  When I was in Russia in the early ’90’s the most popular music was not head banging rock, but country and western.  And believe me, a Hank Williams’ song sung in Russian is not easily forgotten.   And the most popular TV series in Minsk was. . .wait for it. . .Dallas.   Dubbed, that’s right, in Russian.

I also spent a few years, off and on, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, at the time working as a contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense (not building weapons, but helping to dismantle them).  The native Kazakh people are very proud of their heritage dating back to Genghis Khan and are expert horsemen from the time they learn to walk.  The only thing that seemed to impress them in my interactions with them was that I was from Texas.  “Cowboys.  Bang, bang!.”

Yes, cowboys and mucho bang-bang.

That’s why it came as no surprise to me that Phil Collins is one of the largest single collectors of Alamo memorabilia.  He recently published a book titled, The Alamo and Beyond: A Collector’s Journey, and in his acknowledgments he wrote to “My mother and father, who encouraged my passion for the Alamo by letting me ‘do my thing’ and not changing the TV channel when Fess Parker was on.” In the book is a photo of the author at 5 years old, dressed as Davy Crockett with a coonskin cap and holding a six-shooter.  Not a drum in sight.  His book is filled with fascinating photos of letters, armaments and the men and women who fought for Texas Independence.

My brother got a chance to meet him at the book launch and signing in Houston and Phil said that it had been a life long dream to collect Alamo artifacts to feel a deeper connection to the time.  He said, “I find the mystery of that era captivating.”  He also said that, “if ever you want to start an argument with someone in Texas, the easiest way is to ask how did Davy Crockett die. . .”

Texans aren’t the only citizens who get fired up when someone yells, “Remember the Alamo!”