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Making Art Out of War: "Photography and the American Civil War"

Jeanne Schinto | August 18th, 2013

Unknown artist, after an 1860 carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady (circa 1822-1896). Presidential campaign medal with portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin (Hamlin on reverse, not shown), 1860. Tintypes in stamped brass medallion. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, The Overbrook Foundation Gift, 2012 (2012.12). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown artist, Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, “Tom Cobb Infantry,” Thirty-eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861-62. Quarter-plate (3¼" x 4¼") ambrotype with applied color. David Wynn Vaughan Collection. Photo: Jack Melton.

Unknown artist, Union Private, 11th New York Infantry (also known as the 1st Fire Zouaves), May-June 1861. Sixth-plate (3¼" x 2¾") ambrotype. Michael J. McAfee Collection. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown artist, Sojourner Truth, I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance, 1864. Albumen silver print (carte de visite) from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2013 (2013.54). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Andrew Joseph Russell (American, 1830-1902), Slave Pen, Alexandria, Virginia, 1863. Albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005 (2005.100.91). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Timothy H. O’Sullivan (American, born Ireland, 1840-1882), Alexander Gardner, printer, Field Where Gen. Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 1863, Plate 37 in Volume 1 of Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. Albumen silver print from glass negative. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gilman Collection, purchase, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee Gift, 2005, 2005.100.502.1 (37). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Alexander Gardner (American, born Scotland, 1821-1882), Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills, Richmond, 1865. Albumen silver prints from glass negatives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 (33.65.11, .226). Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Reed Brockway Bontecou (American, 1824-1907), Union Private John Parmenter, Company G, Sixty-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, June 21, 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative carte de visite. Collection Stanley B. Burns, M.D. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Photos courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Photography and the American Civil War, now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is as much about photography as it is about our bloodiest military conflict. Curated by the Met’s Jeff L. Rosenheim, the show explores the role of the camera before, during, and after the war. It examines how photographic images influenced the war’s outcome and how the war in turn influenced photography. That’s the bare bones of it, anyway. The experience of it is something else again.

This is an exhibit that silences people. Even if it didn’t, the sound would be muffled by the walls’ white canvas. A brilliant design choice, the material bridges the two sides of this complex undertaking. The material is the kind used for the battlefield tents that officers sat in as they planned their attacks against each other. It is also the kind used for the battlefield photographers’ makeshift darkrooms, where many of the visual records that have become our collective memory of the war were made.

Mathew Brady is easily the most famous name in Civil War photography even though he took few of the photos to which that name has been attached. Represented here by, among other things, a camera and tripod from his studio lent by the Loewentheil family, he mostly directed and disseminated the work produced by staff. His entrepreneurial role was achievement enough, however. A New York Times reporter reviewing Brady’s 1862 exhibition The Dead of Antietam commended him for bringing home “the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” Until then, the American people had not seen views of war. They understood the battlefield as a reality but a remote one, “like a funeral next door,” as the Times reporter put it. Brady in effect laid the bodies out in the public’s “dooryards” and along their streets.

The work of Brady’s chief operator, Alexander Gardner, who went out on his own shortly after The Dead of Antietam went up, is another necessary highlight of this comprehensive show. It was he and his crew who created the gruesome battlefield photographs that are well known. These include John Reekie’s A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, Virginia, featuring skulls, limbs, and a disembodied boot on a wagon, ready for carting away by one of the African-Americans assigned to gather and bury these neglected remains. What I didn’t know until I read the catalog, however, is that Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War, besides being a seminal document of the Civil War, was by all accounts America’s first book of photographs.

Similarly, George N. Barnard’s magnificent, almost magisterial Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, besides providing one of the most aesthetically pleasing parts of the show, was the first monograph in American photographic history, published in 1866. His ­photographs Ruins of the Rail Road Depot, Charleston, South Carolina; Scene of General McPherson’s Death; Nashville from the Capitol, and the like read almost like Hudson River school landscapes in black and white.

This show is much, much bigger than Brady, Gardner, Barnard, and other well-known names, however. In fact, a case could be made that some of the most affecting images, among the more than 200 assembled here, are the studio portraits of soldiers by unknown artists.

Uniformed men and boys sit or stand, often alone, but sometimes in pairs or groups, looking vaguely familiar, like people we recognize from somewhere we’ve forgotten, wearing expressions we might have worn if we had been in their situation. Often they have weapons in hand, their cheeks are artificially rosy by tint, or gold flecks have been added to their military buttons. Visiting a photographer’s studio to have one’s likeness made was already established as a tradition before the war. It brought new meaning and purpose to a soldier who made a stop at a studio before he left home. What once had been merely the means to acquiring a permanent mirror became a process believed to be a talisman. But what to make of an unknown artist’s sixth-plate tintype of a woman holding cased portraits of Civil War soldiers? Is this the only way she could “be” with the pictured men because they are among the war dead? Or is this a lucky charm doubled down?

Earlier studio portraitists produced daguerreotypes. Wartime business opportunities spurred the development of less expensive, more democratic forms—ambrotypes, tintypes, and cartes de visite. But there are far fewer Confederate examples since photographic supplies in the South were scarce, given the Union’s successful blockade of almost every Confederate-held port, and open studios were close to nonexistent. One of those rarities, showing two related Confederates, is the subject of an unknown artist’s quarter-plate ambrotype that was lent, along with other items, by David Wynn Vaughan and used on the cover of the catalog. A short story, if not a whole novel, is contained in the contrast: the Hollywood handsome Captain Charles A. Hawkins appears ready to be heroic, while Sergeant John M. Hawkins, his brother or cousin to judge by his surname, telegraphs his misery and fear with vacant eyes and a pitiable frown.

Images of war equipment and military engineering feats are another mesmerizing part of this exhibit, and they make a rich counterpoint to the portraits, putting them in context and emphasizing the impersonal nature of modern warfare. Andrew Joseph Russell’s 1863 Confederate Method of Destroying Rail Roads at McCloud Mill, Virginia, for example, is an albumen silver print showing the clever technique of disrupting a section of iron track by heating the rails to twist them. (The heat was created by piling up logs beneath the rails and lighting a fire.) Attributed to Alma A. Pelot of Charleston are three other albumen silver prints showing the inside of Fort Sumter. Dated April 15, 1861, they were made on the third day of the battle that officially began the war. Pelot’s images are not only well composed, they are believed to be the first photographic images of the conflict, and his Western Barracks and Parade is the first known photograph showing the Confederate flag in military use. A young studio assistant hoping to cash in on an opportunity, Pelot had essentially slipped into a then relatively new profession—photojournalism.

There are no actual battle scenes in this show, only scenes of the aftermath. Action photography was still decades away, given the heavy wooden glass-plate cameras, the fragility of the plates themselves, and all the chemicals needed to sensitize those plates. And for the same reason that we lack many Confederate soldiers’ studio portraits, there are no large sets of extant battlefield studies made by southern artists during the war years.

What the period did have was three-dimensional imagery in the form of stereoviews, and in one of the galleries there are two stereoscopes showing a series of stereoviews from Gardner’s Sketch Book. Rosenheim notes in his catalog that those who were working for Gardner seem to have worked in teams using both stereo and flat-view cameras.

Stereoviews, for those who do not know, consist of two images mounted side by side. One is slightly different from the other, corresponding to the two slightly different images that our eyes submit to our brain, allowing us to see depth. When viewed through a stereoscope, stereoviews appear in 3-D. Twin-lensed stereoview cameras, being more compact than the typical 8" x 10" flat-view cameras and with shorter exposure times, were found to be ideal for the task of photographing in the field.

Incidentally, the controversy over Gardner’s manipulation of facts for his Sketch Book is made better known by this exhibition. Granted, the practice of doctoring or faking an image for a more dramatic result isn’t anything new in the world of documentary photography, nor is everyone convinced that that’s what Gardner did. But it does appear to some that, in one instance, he moved a body to make a better picture, and in another, provided a dead soldier with a prop rifle, then wrote a caption mislabeling him as a crack Confederate sharpshooter (who could “snuff a candle at a hundred yards”) when he was actually just another poor fallen Union infantryman.

Others who understood the power of images, doctored or otherwise, were the makers of the world’s first political campaign photo medallion, in the form of a tintype, copied from Mathew Brady’s 1860 campaign photograph of Abraham Lincoln. Actually, there were several versions, the most common being one that slightly altered the candidate’s features. And as Rosenheim points out, this had the benefit of making him appear “more classically handsome and less rough-hewn; more like James Stewart in Rear Window than the wild man found in period descriptions.”

Five years later, America’s first broadside illustrated with photographs, another photographic first that was the result of the war, helped militia hunt down Lincoln’s assassins. Within 24 hours of the president’s death, authorities had found Booth’s photograph by searching his hotel room and had extracted cartes de visite of accomplices John Surratt and David Herold from their respective families. The wanted poster reproduced the portraits along with the words “THE MURDERER Of our late beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, IS STILL AT LARGE.” They were soon found. Although Booth died of gunshots during the manhunt, among the last photographs associated with the Civil War is Gardner’s grim Execution of the Conspirators, part of a series he made on that hot day.

The hanging took place at the old arsenal penitentiary in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1865. On the gallows along with Herold was Surratt’s mother, Mary, seen under a parasol prior to having the rope fixed around her neck. Gardner sold his prints as a sequential picture story. “Among the world’s first spot-news photographs, they are as unnerving today as they were at the time,” Rosenheim writes.

But of all the graphic images in this exhibit, none can compare to the clinical studies from the collection of medical historian Stanley B. Burns, who lent a selection from the photographs of U.S. Army surgeon Reed Brockway Bontecou. It is an unprecedented record of patients documented in cartes de visite upon their arrival from the battlefield, before and after surgery, during their recovery, or upon their death, if that was the outcome. And the likes of them will probably never be seen again, considering the evolution of doctor-patient confidentiality laws.

Included are four pages, mounted with a dozen cartes de visite each, from Bontecou’s voluminous Private Teaching Album of Wounded Civil War Soldiers, 1864-1865. They show men with missing or mutilated limbs or other parts of their bodies holding a signboard chalked with their name and the date. Sometimes Bontecou made enlargements and put them in oval mounts. Private John Parkhurst, Company E, Second New York Heavy Artillery is a  5 1/8" x 7½" silver print showing the recovered subject with a hole in his head left by a bullet. A note affixed to the reverse said he was 50 years old and “Doing well.”

It all sounds very gruesome, and it undeniably is. The ­medical portraits show what happened to all those men and boys in those studio portraits. Considering their expressions, though, the subjects seem to understand the purpose of the doctor’s camera. Their trust in him comes through, as does his respect for them. As Burns has written, it was Bontecou who “introduced the application of photography for clinical purposes...The images became a major educational device to help surgeons learn routine procedures and the expected results.”

Too bad that while we have made great advances in medical science since then, we still haven’t figured out how not to fight wars in the first place.

Photography and the American Civil War, on view at the Met through September 2, will travel to the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, and be on view from September 27 through January 5, 2014, and then will be at the New Orleans Museum of Art from January 31 through May 4, 2014. For more information, see the Web site (

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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