Important new photo-documentary Civil War volume is out
The book’s prologue opens opposite Timothy O’Sullivan’s 1863 photograph of dead men on a field at Gettysburg. “This book,” the text states, “is…an exploration of the role of the camera at a watershed moment in American culture.” About 1,000 photographers had worked to capture hundreds of thousands of views of the war.
In 1862, Mathew Brady exhibited images of what turned out to be the deadliest day of battle in American history—at Antietam. “Brady’s photographs,” Rosenheim, MMA curator, comments, “were graphically brutal, and curiously, they were available for immediate purchase, conveniently sized for easy insertion into the period’s ubiquitous portrait albums.”
It has come to light that Brady had not taken the photos—he’d not stepped onto battlefields, but had assigned other photographers. The new book is an essential revision of documentary history, based on improved sources.
Rosenheim provides a history of early photography, including a survey of methods. In 1850, Brady had used daguerreotypes, portraits made on copper plates, to publish his path-breaking, “The Gallery of Illustrious Americans.”
The ambrotype (glass plate) image featured on the book’s front cover is the product of an unknown travelling camp-follower, one of many that made money doing portraits. Two brothers, Capt. Charles Hawkins on the left, and John on the right, both members of the 38th Regiment, Ga. Volunteer Infantry, Co. E, pose at the war’s start.
Charles would die, fighting under Lee as he crossed into Pennsylvania. John would survive, and make it to Appomattox.
The portraits in which people are identified usually had benefitted from having remained in family hands, but many images still beg for names.
The book also includes images of African Americans; wounded men; the landscape of Sherman’s march; generals; and Lincoln.
An exhibition of the photos premieres at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Apr. 2 through Sept. 2. It moves to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, Sept. 27, 2013 through Jan. 5, 2014; and then to New Orleans.
See selected highlights.