Last month’s offering in this series of posts about documentary and photojournalism collections noted how the Crimean War posed an opportunity—and enormous challenges—to British photographer Roger Fenton.
Just six years later, a conflict on American soil, likewise, fueled Mathew Brady’s entrepreneurial ambitions, leading to some of the best known photographic documentation of the Civil War. At the outbreak of war in April 1861, Mathew Brady, already well established as a portrait photographer, was fired with ambition to document the conflict between the Union and the Confederacy on a grand scale. Friends tried to discourage him, citing battlefield dangers and financial risks, but Brady persisted. He later said, “I felt that I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went.”
Brady didn’t actually take many of the Civil War photographs attributed to him but, rather, supervised a corps of traveling photographers and bought photos from private photographers fresh from the battlefield. The range of images, from portraits and camp scenes to landscapes and battle preparations and aftermath, is impressive.
Brady’s enterprise earned him attention in his own time and in the decades since. In 1862 Brady shocked America by displaying Alexander Gardner’s and James Gibson’s photographs of battlefield corpses from Antietam. Brady never achieved great wealth from his enterprise, but the New York Times said that he had brought “home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war.” Personally, I find some of the scenes of Richmond in ruins among the most haunting from any war.
Brady’s name became popularly associated with Civil War photography, but many photographers contributed to making a lasting photographic record of the war. The Prints and Photographs Division has photographs by quite a few photographers, including Alexander Gardner, James F. Gibson, Timothy O’Sullivan and Andrew J. Russell.
The photographers’ combined efforts resulted in a multi-faceted view of the war’s participants and sites, although photographic technology at the time, as with the Fenton photographs, limited how much action a photographer could capture. The Prints and Photographs Division has more than 7,000 glass negatives made during the Civil War, all of which can be viewed as positive images online. The division also holds photographic prints that correspond to many of the negatives, as well as a photographic format that helped to bring Civil War scenes to life: stereographs enable the viewer to have a “you are there” experience when viewed through a special viewer.
A Research Focus
Just as researchers have explored how Roger Fenton may have shaped impressions of the Crimean War by staging photographs, the Civil War photographs have received in-depth analyses. Scholar William Frassanito, in particular, did pioneering work in closely examining photographs taken at Antietam and at Gettysburg. He turned up fascinating findings about how the photographs had been mislabeled (in one case, the same bodies are alternately described as Confederate and as Union soldiers) and how the scene that some photographs captured was altered for effect. (The “Learn More” section, below, gives full bibliographic information for the books.)
More recently, researchers from the Center for Civil War Photography have delved deeply into the content and context of the photographs, illuminating photography practice from the Civil War years, assisting in identification of the locations and scenes depicted, and taking participants in their Image of War seminars to the sites the photographers traversed more than 150 years ago. Along the way, they have informed our description of the images and provided support for ongoing scanning of the Civil War collections in the interest of sharing these images and all that they convey more widely.
- There is way too much to say about the Prints and Photographs Division’s Civil War collections. For starters:
- Visit our Civil War search page to get a broad overview of the holdings and try some of your own searches.
- View the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, which brings us the faces of those who marched off to war and those who waited anxiously on the home front. The collection includes ambrotype and tintype portraits of Union and Confederate soldiers, as well as women and children.
- Dive more deeply into the Civil War photographs, and explore some of William A. Frassanito’s findings in online essays, Does the Camera Ever Lie?, The Case of Confused Identity, and The Case of the Moved Body, that accompany the Civil War photographs. To read the full story, look for some of Frassanito’s most influential books: Gettysburg: a Journey in Time (New York, Scribner ) [view catalog record] and Antietam: the Photographic Legacy of America’s Bloodiest Day (New York : Scribner, 1978) [view catalog record].
- Get perspective on what it took to make photographs in the field by reading the essay, Taking Photographs During the Civil War and viewing Civil War photographs and drawings that show photographers’ equipment.
- Follow the activities and insights of the Center for Civil War Photography through their Web site and Facebook page.
- I was treating myself at home to some “you are there” viewing through the pages of Bob Zeller’s and John Richter’s Lincoln in 3-D (San Francisco, Calif.: Chronicle Books, 2010) [view catalog record], which I found in my local public library. The book reproduces photographs from the Civil War, including many stereograph negatives and other images from Library of Congress collections, that come to life when you don the 3-D glasses that come packaged with the volume. I couldn’t resist sharing P&P’s copy of the book in the reading room–an easy way to thrill your friends and colleagues!