The following is a guest post by Nina Iskandarsjach, Prints & Photographs Division Stanford in Government Liljenquist Fellow.
As an intern at the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, I spent much of my summer researching images from the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Much of my work involved identifying and researching lesser-known photographers who had otherwise been forgotten with time. This information has been helpful for providing more context in catalog records as well as gaining a deeper understanding of Civil War photography.
During my research, I came across this image of an unidentified African American boy standing in front of a painted backdrop.
The backdrop displays tents, cannons, and an American flag, much like what a military encampment at the time might have looked like. Additionally, attached to the inside cover of the photograph case is a campaign button with President Lincoln’s portrait.
Of the many images I discovered over the course of my internship, this one has always been the most intriguing to me, because so much is unknown. Who was this little boy? Was he formerly enslaved? How did he come to get his picture taken in front of a military backdrop? Why is his picture encased with a Lincoln campaign button? I wanted to learn as much about this photograph as I could, and despite the challenges involved in identifying a subject or photographer with little provided information, I knew I had to at least try.
In order to learn more about this photograph, I tried to find other images in the Library’s catalog with the same backdrop. Painted backdrops were frequently used in photographic studios during the Civil War, often displaying patriotic themes and motifs. I figured that if I could find other images with the same backdrop, I might be able to narrow down the location of the image or the photographic studio it was taken in.
I was able to find two images in the Library’s records with the same backdrop. This image of an unidentified soldier wearing a Zouave fez:
And this image of an unidentified soldier carrying revolvers and swords:
The second image contains a handwritten note on its case: “Cyrus hear [sic] I will send you my likeness to remember me dear brother.”
Unfortunately, neither subject nor photographer nor photographic gallery is identified in these images.
Without any textual clues as to who might be pictured and where the photograph was made, I decided to look more closely into the actual backdrop for any identifying information. Many Civil War photographs with painted backdrops were made in areas where large groups of soldiers gathered, such as military encampments or recruitment centers. Additionally, backdrops sometimes reflected the areas where the studios were located. The backdrop present in these photographs displays a bridge over a small body of water, possibly a river. There are also several trees present. The trees appear to be deciduous, possibly located somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic or Northeastern regions of the United States. Could they give an idea of the landscape where the photographer set up their studio?
The arched bridge bears a resemblance to one on the Antietam battlefield. Could it have been made to commemorate the battle? These guesses, however, are simply speculation, and there were too many military encampments to narrow down the location any further.
Ultimately, with little information to start with, it is not possible to identify everyone. During my time researching at the Library of Congress, I hit dead-ends and came away empty-handed many times. There is currently very little scholarly research on painted backdrops, despite their popularity in Civil War portraiture. More research dedicated to this topic could help us uncover the identities of many more soldiers and photographers who served and worked during the Civil War.
Regardless of the inevitable frustration that these dead-ends can cause, it is still possible to appreciate the rarity and the power of an image, despite not knowing the story behind it. If you recognize the backdrop and connect it to a photographer, P&P would love to hear from you.
- Explore the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs.
- View more Civil War-era images with painted backdrops. You might also want to explore more images of the bridge in Antietam, Maryland.
- Read more Picture This posts related to the Civil War.