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Photography and the American Civil War

 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Through September 2

Leaning in, to peer through a large tabletop stereoscope, you press your face gently against the eyepiece. And as your eyes begin to focus on the black and white photograph in three dimensions, you smell cedar. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new show “Photography and the American Civil War,” visitors have the opportunity to look through several of these wooden devices, scattered through the 10 exhibit rooms. I had never looked into one before, having done most of my stereograph viewing through small hand-held stereoscopes. For me, this was the highlight of the show, a chance to immerse myself in Civil War America through this act of viewing, leaning into images just as soldiers and civilians did between 1861 and 1865.

There are an abundance of beautiful and moving photographs in this exhibit (more than 200 in all), in all kinds of formats—albumen silver prints, plates from Alexander Gardner’s and George Barnard’s war albums; cartes de visite of soldiers and civilians, young and old, black and white; photos imbedded in campaign buttons, board games, “Wanted” posters and necklaces; and images wedged carefully inside shell and glass lockets. There are also some rare images. Visitors who know their Civil War photos will be intrigued by a set of images of the bombarded and surrendered Fort Sumter, taken on April 15, 1861, by a Charleston photographer’s assistant, Alma A. Pelot.

Through displays and item labels—arranged in a kind of loose chronological order in a series of intimate rooms, some draped in canvas tenting—the exhibit presents three narratives: the history of photography in the mid-19th century; an account of the ways Americans used photographs to narrate the war for themselves; and the story of the war’s battles and political events. Together, they provide a narrative of the prodigious production and consumption of photos during the conflict.

The exhibit also conveys the many roles photos played for soldiers and civilians. The images on display show how photos were items of exchange during the war; photos traveled back and forth across the lines, forging connections between the home front and the battlefield. Photographs were also proof of status and achievement; one case contains cartes de visite of African-American soldiers, each image an assertion of an individual’s achievement of some form of racial equality, and his service to the Union cause. And photos tracked military and political developments; by viewing images of Antietam in Brady’s gallery in October 1862 (several of which appear here, in a kind of meta-exhibit), civilians could grasp what happened during that battle, and its costs.

Photographs appear as both technological and artistic works in the exhibit. The exhibit’s display of Barnard’s images of sites in Georgia (into which he inserted cloudscapes during the negative printing process) conveys the ways photographers artistically manipulated images through technology. And it subverts the assumption that photographs capture “the real war,” and nothing else.

I was more captivated by the arrangement and material settings of the images than I was by the photos themselves. I think this is not only because of my previous familiarity with many of the pictures but also because today the quality of high-resolution digital reproduction is so good that the originals do not seem superior in their clarity or detail.

Perhaps a room devoted to original glass negatives—which the visitor could see in changing light—would have been useful. After all, the word “photography” means “writing with light.” This is why the stereoscope experience was the most effective part of the exhibit for me; it was a new way to experience Civil War photos. But I can imagine that for those viewing these photos for the first time (especially via stereoscopes), they will be an aesthetic revelation.

Northern photographers, armies and scenes dominate the sections on landscape and battlefield images, while both Northerners and Southerners populate the tintype, ambrotype and carte-de-visite portrait displays. Intermixed presentations of the latter signal the common experiences of war over its divisiveness. This reflects the move in recent years toward soldier studies, and also narratives that emphasize shared experiences across the lines. The penultimate room of the exhibit, displaying the medical photographs of Reed Brockway Bontecou, is a nod to recent developments in academic historiography, loosely termed “dark history”: Attention to the violence that characterizes war and cannot be ignored.

In the exhibit’s final room, you come upon a black and white silk mourning corsage bearing a photo of Lincoln set inside a brass button. This will remind you of one of the first pieces you saw in the initial exhibit space: a red, white and blue silk election corsage from 1860. The faces are the same—Lincoln is clean-shaven and smooth-skinned—while the context is radically different. These two items encapsulate a central contention of the exhibit, that the camera “defined and perhaps even helped unify the nation through an unrehearsed and unscripted act of collective memory-making.”

“Photography and the American Civil War” does an excellent job of conveying that process, as it works to document and mediate the war’s many histories through continuous acts of viewing.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.