Thursday, June 28, 2012

Civil War Sesquicentennial: Wartime Photography

Guest post by Esti Brennan, Social Media Intern

[Mathew Brady, autographed 'Carte de Visite' portrait of General George B. 
McClellan, circa 1862. From the Clements Library collection.]

Photographs of the Civil War, though a poignant and engaging window into the past, were created with very different goals and standards than those upheld by today's wartime photographers. The rise of cheaply reproducible paper-based photo printing in the 1860s allowed commercial photographers to produce and sell not only portraits of soldiers and war heroes but images of the war itself. The latter were often grisly, depicting rows of bodies and demolished battle sites as somber reminders of the realities of war--not an unfamiliar genre--but there is substantial evidence that the photographers manipulated their tableaux for maximum effect, physically rearranging corpses and staging scenes with living soldiers to either idealize or enhance the tragedy of their subjects.

[Timothy H. O'Sullivan, "Confederate Dead Near Allsop's House, Spotsylvania," May 1864. 
Clements Library collection.]

By modern photojournalistic standards, this behavior is appalling--but at the time, when only commercial photography companies could afford to field photographers and their heavy equipment, and un-posed photography was a relatively new form, the attention to producing an affect rather than focusing on strict realism was a logical approach to the art. As Clayton Lewis, Curator of Graphic Materials at the Clements Library, wrote in issue no. 34 of the Clements Library Quarto
"It is important to consider that the nienteenth-century audience was not seeking impartial facts as much as spiritual, sentimental meanings and evidence of the moral cost and justification of the war. Photographers were seeking journalistic truths but not at the expense of what they saw as greater aesthetic and moral truths." (5)
Regardless of their attitudes, Civil War photographers sparked the beginning wartime photojournalism--never before had the public been able to view evidence of battlefield horrors so unfiltered by an artist's perspective--even a staged photograph is generally more objective than a painting or engraving. Much as subsequent wars have been revealed through advances in cinematic and television technology, the photographs brought back from the battlefields of the Civil War provided civilians with an unprecedented and heart-wrenching view into the conflict that was threatening to tear their country apart, as well as creating new forms of entertainment in the form of stereographic images and collectible portraits of war heroes such as the photo of General McClellan above.


Further reading in the Clements Library:

Civil War Portraits in our collections.

James D. Horan, Mathew Brady, Historian with a Camera (New York, 1955).

Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, Original Photographs Taken on the Battlefields During the Civil War of the United States... (Hartford, Connecticut, 1907).

Read Clayton Lewis' article in the Fall-Winter 2010 edition of The Quarto.



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