Civil War photographs show a familiar but distant past
Exhibit's images made conflict real to viewers
WINCHESTER -- What made the Civil War the first modern war? Armored warships and repeating rifles made their first appearance. Sherman's March to the Sea invented total war. Railroads and steamships transformed military logistics. Not least of all, photography allowed the civilian population to experience war with an unprecedented immediacy and directness.
The Civil War wasn't the first military conflict to be photographed. Roger Fenton's images of the Crimean War, a few years earlier, form an important chapter in early photographic history. But thanks to the duration of the war and the large number of photographers recording it, the Civil War came to be visualized as no previous war had been. It was by no means a complete visualization. Long exposure times and unwieldy equipment severely limited what could be photographed. On canvas, horses might prance and cannonballs fly, but not on glass-plate negatives. Even so, there was no comparison between history painting and photography as to the degree of reality -- and revelation -- each had to offer.
"Landscapes of the Civil War" consists of 92 photographs drawn from the 5,400 Civil War images held by the Medford Historical Society. It's a Northern show. The only Confederates seen are prisoners or dead, such as the subject of Alexander Gardner's famous "A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep, Gettysburg." (Already photography cared more about aesthetics than morality: Gardner dragged the body 40 yards to get the composition he wanted.)
It's also a white show. Only a few of the photographs include any African-Americans. Their presence in the war -- as soldiers, laborers, residents of the war zone -- was great, but they weren't what viewers back home wanted to see. Even more than now, perhaps, the photographer's sense of his audience determined his sense of subject.
What Northern audiences wanted to see were images of patriotic service (the soldiers posing for the camera in 1861 or '62 have an innocence and ease nowhere to be seen in later pictures) or images of triumph. In some ways, these are the most striking in the show -- though triumph is a relative thing. A photograph of Fort Sumter taken the day President Lincoln was shot has an enormous corrective power. The death of so many started here, atop this lumpish mound of earth and masonry?
If technology limited what photographers could show, those very limitations could also impart an inadvertent expressivity to the images. There's the prevailing stillness imposed by the long exposures -- an almost serene sense of stasis. More than that, the occasional cracks and imperfections in the pictures (the result of impurities on the photographic plates) take on an eerie eloquence: It's as if the terrible swift sword that will soon claim so many of these men has already sliced into the image. Or there are the snow-covered buildings and trees of "Government Corral, at Gieboro Point, Washington, D.C.," so tranquil it could be a holiday scene out of Currier & Ives -- except for the black smudges in the sky. Dust or dirt getting on the wet plate caused them, but the visual effect is as of looming death.
So much of what we see here belongs to a distant past: the horses, the cannons, the wooden trestle bridges (their rickety splendor makes them seem more like pieces of sculpture than engineering). Yet so much is familiar: The fire-blasted masonry and rubble-filled streets of Richmond, Va., after its capture could as easily be Berlin 80 years later. The stump-filled landscape of Missionary Ridge could have been denuded by Agent Orange.
Photography gave warfare an unrivaled specificity in the public imagination, not just through its ability to show all that it did but also through its showing up all the traditional (not to mention mendacious) artistic conventions of history painting. More than that, it gave warfare a newfound universality. So long as he was tricked out in Benjamin West's finest oils, General Wolfe dying on the Plains of Abraham could look so grand and noble -- so special. There's nothing special about Gardner's dead sharpshooter (nothing except his corpse's having been dragged those 40 yards). He and Wolfe were both just as dead. The camera, no less than the gun, declines to play favorites.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.
Landscapes of the Civil War
At: the Griffin Museum of Photography, 67
Shore Road, Winchester, through June 25.