Bringing the Civil War Home – the Photographers (Article 56)
The American public, both in the North and the South, had never seen anything like it. Newspapers and periodicals, which carried the images, sold thousands of extra copies compared to those that did not, and people flocked to exhibits to see the pictures first hand. The photographs were of dead soldiers, both Union and Confederate, taken as they lay, nearly covering the ground, in the distorted postures that only horrific violence against another human being can cause. A New York Times editor said; “(The photographer is bringing) home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them on our door-steps, he has done something very like it.”
Amid the chaos of the War, a few photographers became famous for telling their own stories of that conflict; not with words but with un-edited scenes of the terrible aftermath of war. Photography became a medium for an important message; war was not the grand adventure often described by Victorian era writers and artists. Until the Civil War, most manuscripts and memoirs about war, and oil paintings by artists of the day, glorified warfare as noble and even romantic. But, the photographer’s new message clearly showed that it was dirty, destructive and deadly; and that powerful message began to sway public opinion.
Photography had evolved in the thirty years before the War but was not yet seen as an art form; it was simply a fascinating new way to record events and portraits of people; although only in black and white. The first useful method, daguerreotypes, only provided a single mirror image, was nearly impossible to reproduce, and was easily damaged or completely ruined. However, by the late 1850s, improvements in the process had evolved to make photography more widespread, durable, practical, and reproducible; but it still required professional skills. And, to many, the work of a fine painter was still preferable to photography as the artist could depict a larger scale and with vivid colors. A few artists even began to add tints to photographs to make them appear more lifelike.
Even by the time of the Civil War, successful photographers had to be a combination of chemist, physicist, authoritarian, and laborer. The process required the mixing of several caustic chemicals, including sulfuric acid and silver nitrate, which was then coated onto a glass plate just moments before the photograph would be taken. The treated plate had to be protected from any light source as it was quickly inserted into the body of the large camera box, then a lens cap was removed for a precise amount of time, depending on the light of day, to allow only the correct amount of light to strike the glass plate and cause the desired chemical reaction. A good photograph also required the subject or subjects to remain absolutely still because, if anyone moved, their motion was captured as a blur. One photographer said, “I am the Captain in my studio and I tolerate no movement.” And, another who took many battlefield photographs said, “I take better images of the dead, they lie still.” The equipment was heavy and bulky which required strength and agility to set up the camera and take it down when finished. The process was also accident prone as the dangerous chemicals could spill, or the glass plate would break which usually rendered the image useless.
As a result of the effort and expense required, relatively few people learned the skill. But those who did, began to make their mark in society. Mathew Brady became the most recognized master of his craft and built profitable businesses from his studios in New York and Washington DC. One of his most trusted employees was Alexander Gardner who was assigned primarily to the office in Washington DC and began to photograph the leading politicians of the day. At that time, Abraham Lincoln was not yet one of them.
However, in 1859, Lincoln was in New York City to present a political speech at Coopers Union, a small Manhattan college, which he hoped would be reprinted by the Eastern press and expand his recognition in the region. He visited Brady’s studio for a portrait, which he intended to use to introduce himself to the Eastern population. He knew that he had to dispel the common notion that he was a simple “western frontiersman” from Illinois. Brady posed Lincoln standing, in a new suit, which was bought and pressed for the occasion, resting his hand on a bookstand. Lincoln’s political instincts were, as usual, very good and the speech solidified his stature as a serious Republican leader. Brady’s photograph was released at Coopers Union and then reproduced in newspapers, campaign pamphlets, and in new copies of the still popular book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The public now had an image of Abraham Lincoln, looking presidential, confident, and, as Lincoln himself joked, not at all as ugly as some had expected.
But then the Civil War started and Mathew Brady recognized the business potential of quickly delivering photographs of the Generals and soldiers taken at the battle-front to newspapers and periodicals. But Brady did not initially set out to be a messenger warning of the horrors of war; he just wanted to run a successful business and enjoy the profits which would be created.
To cover the wide territory of the Civil War, Brady had to first make a major financial investment. He designed a portable, but very sturdy, dark room that could safely carry all of the necessary photographic supplies, including chemicals, glass plates, and the camera. He then manufactured over twenty large covered buckboards, which would each be drawn by one or two horses. Finally, he trained other photographers who would drive the wagons and follow the Union armies from battlefield to battlefield. He and his crew of photographers, would, for the first time, bring the scenes of the battle-front to the home-front. Among those roving photographers/assistants were Alexander Gardner, Timothy Sullivan and James Gibson, who all became well known in their own right; but, of those, Gardner certainly became the most prominent.
While some of Brady’s photographers were able to cross into Confederate territory to capture images, and a few Southerners also learned the craft and took historic photographs; far more images were taken from the Union perspective. This disparity was partly because both Brady and Gardner supported the War to restore the Union and were admirers of Abraham Lincoln. However, while Brady was generally quiet about his politics, Gardner was outspoken in his advocacy for the Union, support for its use of overwhelming military force, and his respect for the courage of the individual Union soldier. On the other hand, he frequently described the Confederate forces in less complimentary terms and editors would occasionally include his comments about a battle along with his photographs. As an example, after the battle of Gettysburg, Gardner’s photographs of devastated terrain and Confederate dead were accompanied by his words; “Killed in the frantic efforts to break the steady lines of patriots, they paid with life the price of their treason, and when the wicked strife was finished, found nameless graves, far from home and kindred.”
Abraham Lincoln appreciated the loyalty of both men and frequently gave each of them permission to take photographs of him not only at the White House, but in battle areas as well. Lincoln understood that images of him near the battlegrounds with soldiers would “play well” in the communities across the North, where such photographs were featured in local newspapers.
In late 1863, Gardner began to realize that, while he had taken many of the more dramatic pictures of the then two-year Civil War, Mathew Brady was given (or took) most of the credit. Gardner was appreciative of Brady’s mentorship and did not resent the existing arrangement, but was ready to break out on his own. The two men reached an amicable settlement with Brady even transferring ownership of some of Gardner’s photographs; and Gardner then opened his own studio in Washington DC.
Gardner became close to Abraham Lincoln, and several of his photographs of the President have become iconic, including one of the most artful images of Lincoln which captured, in the President’s lined and weary face, the enormous toll that the War had taken on the man.
Collectively, the photographers of the Civil War era provided thousands of images of people and places from that great conflict, however, their contributions were possible because Brady and Gardner, with their extraordinary vision and talent, advanced the profession of photography.
Mathew Brady, by his professional foresight and his willingness to invest heavily in the horse drawn photographic studios and in the training and salaries of the several assistants, was critical to the extensive record we have of the Civil War. And, Alexander Gardner transcended mere images and captured the harsh reality of war with his pioneering images of the tragic loss of life, young men left with terrible wounds, and devastated farms and communities.
And both men, by developing a trusting relationship with Abraham Lincoln, left us with unique and deeply introspective portraits, taken over several years, which let us glimpse Lincoln’s heartfelt humanity and the sad evolving effect the War took on this President.
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