New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 31 July 30 to September 10, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Carnage Stilled

Photography and the American Civil War
R. Wayne Parsons

Photo by Timothy O Sullivan . Source:
Timothy O Sullivan, "Harvest of Death" 1863.

The American Civil War (aka The War Between the States, or, in some quarters, The War of Northern Aggression) was one of superlatives: the most divisive event in our nation’s history, the largest number of fatalities in any war we have fought (in fact, about as many or more deaths as in all other American conflicts combined), the first modern, “total,” war, and the first to be extensively documented with photography. It is this last aspect that concerns the fascinating new exhibition at the Met.

The Civil War achieved its most important goal: preserving the union. A side effect was to advance the practice of photography. When the war began, the medium was little more than two decades old. Photography was co-opted to the war effort in disparate ways, one of which was mapmaking (maps of areas in conflict, essential in any military campaign then as now, could be more easily and quickly reproduced photographically than by other available techniques.) The medium was also useful for swaying popular opinion about the conflict; notable in the exhibition are several photos of former slaves used for propaganda purposes in the North. They also were a means of capturing and preserving facts about the war for posterity. Another development covered extensively in the exhibition was the use of photography to document, for both instructional and historical purposes, war wounds (some of these images are not for the squeamish).

Mid nineteenth-century photography was a demanding process of wet emulsions applied to large glass plates in a portable field darkroom. The long exposure times of several seconds made capturing action virtually impossible. Nevertheless, war photographers successfully made a plethora of images of participants, fortifications, battle sites, war-caused destruction, battle casualties, etc. The magnitude of the photographic enterprise surrounding the war is reflected in the statistic that more than 1,000 photographers are known to have been active during the conflict.

Photo by Unknown . Source:
Unknown, "[Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, "Tom Cobb Infantry," Thirty-eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry]" c. 1861.

Perhaps in portraiture was the contribution of photography most pronounced. It seems that every soldier joining the conflict had his picture taken, often individually, but sometimes with his peers. Subjects typically posed with weaponry, often their own, but occasionally with inappropriate choices, as when a private would pose holding an officer’s sword. Facial expressions are somber, though this reflects not so much the prospect of war as the convention for portraiture at the time; smiling for the camera came later. Typically these photographs are small, just a few inches on each dimension. Either tintypes or ambrotypes, media that could be quickly and cheaply made, these images were frequently mounted in small velvet-lined cases, also inexpensive. Another practice was to place head shots in lockets so that the girl back home could carry a picture of her beau “close to her heart.” The visitor expecting to see Daguerreotypes will not find any, as the craze for this beautiful medium had peaked a decade or so previously, and the greater complexity and expense of the process limited its appeal in the war’s context.

The text accompanying the exhibition also alludes to another possible role for portrait photographs: as amulets to protect from injury or death. Few people in our society now ascribe such magical powers to photography, though the extent to which such attitudes were common then is not known and presumably not knowable except on an anecdotal basis. In any event, 750,000 deaths in the Civil War suggest that it would have been better not to have war than to take photos.

Photo by Alexander Gardner . Source:
Alexander Gardner, "Studying the Art of War, Fairfax Court-House, [Virginia]" 1863.

Several on-location group shots of officers are on display; an outstanding example is Alexander Gardner’s group portrait of Union General Gustavus A. DeRussy and six of his subordinates, as good a group portrait as one will find anywhere and one of the highlights of the show. A footnote adds meaningful detail, as the exposure was made at the Arlington, Virginia, family home of departed Confederate General Robert E. Lee –– the grounds of the house later became the site of Arlington National Cemetery.

Another consequence of the war was the creation of the photo essay in book form, and the show highlights two pioneers of this genre, Alexander Gardner and George N. Barnard. Gardner’s “Sketch Book of the War”, published in 1865, contained 100 albumen prints from the war by eleven photographers, including himself, and can justly be called the nation’s first photo book. (Incidentally, Gardner, in contrast to Matthew Brady, credited the photographer who made each image. Brady’s policy of claiming sole credit for the products of his photo empire did not sit well with his employee Gardner and led the latter to leave Brady and open a competing business. There is little doubt that Gardner was the more gifted artist.)

Photo by George N. Barnard  . Source:
George N. Barnard , "Destruction of Hood's Ordinance Train" 1864.

Barnard’s book, “Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign,” consists of one hundred photographs, all made by Barnard himself. While Barnard accompanied Sherman on his famous march, circumstances prohibited him from making as many suitable images as he needed, so he returned a year later to complete the job. We are indebted to his perseverance, as the generous selection of prints from his book is perhaps the most visually pleasing aspect of the show and will capture the fancy of anyone who appreciates monochromatic landscapes. See, for example, “Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain” and “Bonaventura Cemetery, Four Miles from Savannah.” (An interesting bit of trivia not mentioned in the texts is the link between this show and “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop,” another outstanding Met exhibition that closed just a few months ago. Barnard used combination printing to add more attractive cloud formations to some of his landscapes, a technique highlighted in the earlier show.)

A variety of outstanding images delights the eye as well as the mind. Many landscapes are superb, especially, as noted above, those by Barnard. Another of my favorites is the above-mentioned Gardner portrait. Also noteworthy is Andrew Joseph Russell’s superb modernistic photo of train track rails crossed over a stack of ties prior to rendering them useless for their intended purpose.

The exhibition is plainly but effectively installed, with gray walls or panels and coarse off-white fabric in some rooms to suggest the atmosphere of wartime tenting. The exhibition is appreciably enhanced by the informative catalog by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator in Charge of the museum’s Department of Photographs.

This is a large exhibition, covering more aspects of the topic than can be explored in this review. Readers with an interest in the Civil War, photography, or simply the American experience, will find a few hours spent here immensely rewarding.

Photography and the American Civil War

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
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212 535 7710

Tuesday, April 2 to
Monday, September 2, 2013
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.

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