- Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff L. Rosenheim
New scholarship and research leading up to the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War has found pathways to the public through record numbers of book publications, social media and digital technology. Digitization has also enabled in–depth examination of the most–visible documentation of the war, the photograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has taken full advantage of presenting this medium in a breathtaking exhibition, “Photography and the American Civil War,” accompanied by a catalogue entitled the same.
We saw use of 19th–century photography as ground–breaking illustration of the war in Ken Burns’s 1990 production, The Civil War, but, while touching on famous photographers of the time, it did not delve into the intricacies of the technology. Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator of the Met exhibit and author of the catalogue, has now taken up the baton and presented us with an admirable examination of photography in its earliest forms, tracing it from a generation of scientific experiments, to a business and, ultimately, an art form. Anybody interested in the subjects of both the war and photography will want to have a copy of this book. [End Page 320]
Visual imagery of the conflict is presented chronologically, beginning with five photographs of Ft. Sumter, April 15, 1861, attributed to Charleston photographer Alma A. Pelot, and believed to be the first photographs of the Civil War. At the end of the chronology Rosenheim describes the technical skills of George N. Barnard, who documented Sherman’s Campaign in 1865 after the war had ended, and produced a book that Rosenheim writes was one of the, “foundational publications of nineteenth–century American photography.” (195)
In between Rosenheim gives meticulous analysis of Matthew B. Brady and his field photographers, including Alexander Gardner, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and James F. Gibson. They photographed Union–occupied areas of the South, and prints of these images were produced en masse in stereoscopic and carte-de-visite format for a curious public. The business was a good one for Brady Studios, but promulgated the misconception that the almost–blind Matthew Brady himself was the man behind the camera. Brady’s business sense saw an opportunity in publishing and exhibiting photographs Gardner and Gibson took of the killing fields at Sharpsburg, MD in September 1862. The startling images of the dead at Antietam presented the death and destruction of war in a way never before imagined. It was, and remains, shocking (7–15).
The images were a big money-maker, and drove a competition to capture similar scenes after later battles. Alexander Gardner, now working independently, photographed the dead on the battlefields of Gettysburg in July 1863 and produced Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (80–113). Rosenheim discusses the clever maneuverings of the photographers in their wet-plate documentation: Gardner setting up shots, moving props, and possibly bodies, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan identifying a swathe of dead, bloated bodies photographed from one angle as Union dead, yet photographed from the other direction they became Rebel dead (99–102.)
Publication and exhibition of photographic witness to the war also ramped up the interest in portrait photography, the evolution of which Rosenheim discusses at length (chapters 8 and 9). Accompanying color bookplate illustrations are breathtaking. The photographs [End Page 321] show Confederate and Union foot soldiers, young men having their likeness taken with a variety of props and severe facial expressions softened by pink tinting to the cheeks. Chapter 10 features uses of photography in documenting war wounds and amputations as implemented by army physician Reed Brockway Bontecou of the 2nd New York Infantry. Bontecou’s photographs are ghoulish, but fascinating at the same time.
Rosenheim comments on the skill of the photographers who produced these masterpieces, and correctly states that they are seldom, if ever, seen; interest in them only seems to find context with a Civil War commemoration, and they are difficult to exhibit due to sometimes very small size...