War is hell, and this somber exhibition of the first war to be visually documented and conveyed to the public by the camera, then a medium only twenty years old, reminds us, yet again, of the destruction, brutality and sheer horror of war.
As students of history know, the American Civil War, during which 750,000 people lost their lives between 1861 and 1865, was particularly destructive and, like all civil wars, particularly sad. More than 200 photographs, assembled for this historic show by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs, capture both the Civil War’s terrible narrative and the surprisingly complex and humane story of photography’s role in that narrative.
The first image we see in this exhibition is, appropriately, a haunting portrait of Abraham Lincoln on the eve of war, looking remarkably young, gaunt, unshaven and wistful.
In fact, the introductory gallery to this eleven-room show, encapsulates the variety of roles Civil War photography played – in politics, medicine, private and public life — and the variety of ways in which it was viewed and used: in jewelry, newspapers, games, campaign buttons, broadsheets, books, family keepsakes, as card-mounted stereoscopic views and carte-de-visite (visiting card) portraiture.
Cartes-de-visite portraiture came into its own during the Civil War. This was as true for abolitionist and human rights activist Sojourner Truth, whose portrait was used as a public relations and fund raising tool, (“I sell the shadow to support the substance”) as it was for individual soldiers, families and friends.
Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company W, “Tom Cobb Infantry,” Thirty Eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, by Unknown Artist, 1861-62. Quarter-plate ambrotype with applied color.
The democratization of photography took place because of the low price (ten cents to $2 an image) and high quality of images, and because severe injury or death (one in five soldiers died) loomed in battle for soldiers. Those two factors propelled tens of thousands of men into photography studios for the first time, transforming portraiture from a luxury to a necessity. Portraits (sometimes hand tinted) of soldiers dressed in uniforms and holding rifles, taken for their loved ones before they left home, proliferated both in the north and south. They are poignant images.
The Civil War also produced such oddities and “collectibles” as a Game Board with Portraits of Lincoln and Union Generals, a Political Necklace with Portraits of the President, Vice President and Secretary of War of the Confederacy, as well as untold numbers of Lockets.
Mathew B. Brady has always been synonymous with Civil War photography but, it turns out, he lost his wagons and camera equipment early in the war, and actually hired and financed others to do the difficult and dangerous work. He bought and published (under his own name) collodian-on-glass (wet plate) negatives made by others, including Alexander Gardner, George N. Barnard, and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, men who would go on to become distinguished Civil War photographers in their own right.
Because the mechanics of photography required large, cumbersome cameras and long exposures, there are few shots of actual battle but, in a war in which, as Rosenheim observed, “the camera went everywhere,” we do have excruciatingly vivid shots of post-battle carnage. That includes destroyed forts, ruined homes, shells of buildings, as well as maimed and dead soldiers, including, most hauntingly, “A Harvest of Death,” a view of Gettysburg by one the best known Civil War landscape photographers, Timothy O’Sullivan, from Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the War (1866).
Alexander Gardner first managed Brady’s studio in Washington, D.C., then worked as a field photographer and, in 1862, left Brady to set up his own business, taking many of Brady’s most experienced artists with him. Like his old boss, he sent out teams of photographers to cover the progress of the Union armies. By the end of the war he’d amassed almost three thousand glass plates from which he selected and printed one hundred in a landmark two-volume book, published in 1866, Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War. 200 copies were printed. Unlike Brady, Gardner credited each photographer for negatives made in the field and credited his role as printer. A beautifully edited and printed work, on view in the exhibition, it is not only the country’s first book of photography, but the first instance of a publisher acknowledging the men who made the images. An entire “tented” room displays images from the Photographic Sketchbook, as well as several copies of the book itself.
There were no female Civil War photographers, but the exhibition does contain one image (see above) of a woman in uniform who fought in the war as a man, as well as several images of female nurses.
No room is more difficult to view than the one devoted to Photography and Medicine. It consists of images mostly made by an army physician who was also a photographer, Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou. For fourteen months, between 1864 and 1865, at Harewood Hospital in Washington, D.C., he photographed his patients, with a carte-de-visite format camera, and created images of soldiers with devastating wounds, as well as amputations, before and after surgeries, primarily as a teaching tool. These grim and honest images – some with red lines indicating the arc of a bullet — represent yet another “first” in the history of photography, one that unfortunately continues to this day.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have George N. Barnard’s landscape photographs of Sherman’s Campaign, some made during the war, many after the war. While printing his negatives, Barnard added cloudscapes for dramatic effect to a third of his images, bound them into a narrative book, with a printed text manufactured separately. As curator Rosenheim notes, “By freeing the pictures from a real attempt at reporting on the overall events of Sherman’s March, Barnard succeeded in doing something profound: he made art out of war.”
The final gallery, focused on the war’s end and the assassination of Lincoln, is another heartbreaker. There is Brady’s post-surrender portrait of Robert E. Lee, looking dignified but tired and defeated; there is Brady’s assemblage of multiple images of Lincoln, to commemorate the fallen President; there is even an image of the assassins being hung.
From beginning to end, this is a tough, serious and mesmerizing exhibition, as far from the pleasures of “Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity,” (still on view) as one can get. Though it draws heavily on the Met’s celebrated holdings of photographs by Brady, Gardner, O’Sullivan, Barnard and others, it also includes works from important private and public collections as well as the Library of Congress.
The Civil War continues to haunt America. It remains a pivotal turning point in our history, and a subject of unparalleled fascination for Americans, north and south. We are privileged to have this profoundly moving, thoughtful and beautifully mounted exhibition in New York for the next five months, before it travels to Charleston and New Orleans. Take your friends, children and parents with you to see it, as well. It offers a rich, complex portrait of America that, through the infant medium of the camera, is forever fixed in our collective vision.
Photography and the American Civil War
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
April 2 – September 2, 2013
Photographs by Eleanor Foa Dienstag