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Photography and the American Civil War by Jeff L. Rosenheim (review)
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The ruins of Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War are iconic. The Gallego Flour Mills, reduced to a hollowness between freestanding brick walls in 1865, recall the once orderly arrangement of building parts that had been the largest such mill in the world. Shadows obscure the lower parts of the buildings, and we cannot see around the corners, behind the walls, or over the piles of rubble to make sense of it. The remaining fragments of three-, four-, and five-story walls challenge us to imagine what they must have looked like whole. The buildings themselves and the factory complex were monumental; so is this document of their destruction. We marvel that the photograph exists at all. It implies the past city, its awful moment of ruin, and a future, because people will return to clean up and erase this terrible, ephemeral landscape.

To mark the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has drawn from its historic collections as well as recent acquisitions of Civil War photographs to create the exhibition Photography and the American Civil War. While the subject of the photographs is the United States during the war, the exhibition explores the role of the camera in documenting and defining the events of the war. Photography was still young, about twenty years old, at the start of the Civil War, and the war years gave photographers opportunities to prove the marketability of their craft, as well as its strategic value to government and military officers, who granted them special access to camps, high-level meetings, and events such as executions. The exhibition highlights the technology of photography, printing, and publishing and considers the cultural impact of the photograph in its different modes of consumption. In the accompanying panels, the curators argue persuasively that Civil War photography played a significant role in a national conversation: “The creation of this vast treasury—a national visual library of sorts—did something the opposing armies and their leaders could not: it defined, and perhaps even helped unify, the nation via an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory making.”

The exhibit itself is reminiscent of the temporary architecture of a military campaign, as each of many small rooms gives the impression of being inside a tent, albeit one with expansive ceilings and good lighting. The exhibit’s approximately twelve-foot-high walls are hung with buff-colored canvas to a height of seven or eight feet, which changes the scale of the walls from gallery space to a more intimate interior feeling. In many of the rooms, grey-green panels on the canvas hold the black-framed individual prints in groupings of one to five. A fair amount of distance between the frames allows enough space for close scrutiny of each image and its label; the texts are longish but rich. In a room about field photography, for instance, the texts investigate both the military operations that are the subjects of the images and the photographers who made the images famous. Other rooms focus on the smaller, inexpensive portraits and views. Cases full of daguerreotypes or stereograph cards illustrate the quantity and similarity of these popular photographic forms while allowing the visitor to examine individual pictures. The stereograph room has a number of stereograph viewers with which visitors can experience how this technology worked in homes and viewing parlors.

Photography and the American Civil War includes some familiar images and many others that are surprising. Exhibit panels tell us about the applications and audience for different media, from miniature daguerreotype portraits, larger glass ambrotypes, and leather-cased tintypes to works on paper, sometimes with added painting or other enhancements. The public viewed the war through individual images, portfolio collections, low-cost cartes de visite, and stereograph views. The price, portability, and currency of these images had everything to do with how people experienced events that were not at their doorstep. The popularity of photography also created celebrity photographers, whose names became as well known as the subjects of their photography. To prove this point, the exhibit shows how Mathew B. Brady’s 1860 portrait of Abraham Lincoln (no. 22) influenced subsequent portraits of Lincoln and others, including even...

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