Monday, April 22, 2013

Photography and the American Civil War

I have always found that April is a great time to visit New York City, as spring arrives there a few weeks before it stretches northward to Cooperstown. On a trip to the City this past weekend, in addition to enjoying the beautiful weather I also managed to make it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its Photography and the American Civil War exhibit. I have looked forward to seeing this show for quite some time, and it did not disappoint. We arrived at the museum in the middle of Saturday afternoon. For those of you who have never been to the Met, the middle of a Saturday afternoon in springtime is probably not the best time to go. The place was packed, and Photography and the American Civil War seemed like the exhibit everyone wanted to see. In the first few rooms I had to move slowly in a line from photograph to photograph. Luckily, this exhibit is a large one, and I found that as I proceeded, museum fatigue set in amongst other visitors, creating a bit more space.

Utilizing an impressive array of over 200 photographs, Photography and the American Civil War analyzes the role of the camera during the Civil War, and explores the personalities and artistic contributions of some of the most prominent men behind the camera. I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of historical content in this exhibit. As someone interested in history and admittedly a novice when it comes to art, I often wish art museums would add more historical context to their exhibits. While the focus was most certainly art, the exhibit also contained a nice narrative structure that explained how the emerging medium of photography helped to shape the way Americans experienced, understood, and remembered the war. And while art museum labels are notoriously skimpy on details, no one could complain about the brevity of the labels for each photograph in this exhibit. Each of the more than 200 photographs had its own unique story. For that reason alone, one could spend hours immersed in examining each individual image. Most of these photographs come from the Met's own incredible collection, while important loans from public and private collections round out the show.
Photography and the American Civil War was a well designed exhibit. Canvas lined the walls in many of the rooms to replicate the feel of an encampment and Met curators imposed an effective thematic structure to the layout of each gallery. The first few rooms introduced the process and types of photographs, and explained the growing importance of photos to Americans of all classes. These rooms also showed the importance of images to the election of 1860, introduced visitors to Matthew Brady and his Washington Gallery manager, Alexander Gardner, and displayed photographs of Fort Sumter taken days after the start of the war. The next section featured a vast number portraits of all types and sizes. This room contained images of famous generals, unknown privates, women, and enslaved individuals. One particular image that caught my eye was a portrait of a Confederate officer with his enslaved body servant standing behind him in what appears to be a Confederate uniform. The caption explained that this portrait was one of only a handful of photographs known to exist of a slave in Confederate uniform.

As you advance through each room of this show, you begin to understand the importance of the camera to the way people experienced, recorded and remembered the war. In addition to the famous battlefield landscapes and death studies, other subjects received equal attention - including portraits, homefront images, ruined city landscapes, and gruesome photos of wounded soldiers taken for medical documentation. Throughout the exhibit visitors are introduced to the men behind the camera, and the exhibit attempts to engage the visitor in thoughts about what these cameramen were trying to convey. The show highlights the work of many photographers, especially the men who went to war under the employment of Matthew Brady and later Alexander Gardner. The works of Timothy O'Sullivan, James F. Gibson, and John Reekie receive a good deal of attention. Most of all though - the second half of the show focuses mostly on four individuals: Alexander Gardner, Andrew Joseph Russell, George N. Barnard, and Reed Brockway Bontecou.

A Harvest of Death, by Timothy O'Sullivan, was one of the images featured from Gardner's Sketchbook of the War.

Gardner takes center stage, a fact I enjoyed immensely. Nothing annoys me more than when museums identify photographs taken by Gardner and his corps of cameramen as Brady photos, especially when those photos were taken after the Gardner/Brady split. In this exhibit, the history of Gardner and his relationship with Brady is explained early, and the Scot is given his rightful due as perhaps the most important photographer during the war. The exhibit devotes an entire room to Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, published in 1866 and featuring 100 photos taken by Gardner and cameramen such as O'Sullivan, Gibson, and Reekie. Many of the labels here quote extensively from Gardner's own captions, and discuss how Gardner's Sketchbook utilized his photographs and captions to craft a narrative of the war that matched his own bias.

Another room focuses on Andrew Joseph Russell, the only photographer who also served in the Union army. A captain in the 141st New York, Russell was employed by Herman Haupt, and was eventually detached from his regiment to serve in the United States Military Railroad Construction Corps. Much of his work focused on Union engineering and transportation, but he also managed to capture other scenes, including incredible photographs taken just hours after the 6th Corps had captured Mayre's Heights during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

George N. Barnard's Battle Ground of Resacca, GA No. 1

In the section of the exhibit on George N. Barnard, visitors were asked to compare and contrast his work with that of Alexander Gardner. Both photographers published a collection of their work after the Civil War. Barnard's was Photographic Views of Sherman's March. Due to the pace of Sherman's advance through Georgia, Barnard did not have the opportunity to capture as much as he wanted along the route as the army's official photographer. To remedy this, Barnard traveled back across the route during the summer of 1866. While Gardner's work often included shots of individuals and groups and battlefield wreckage, Barnard often focused on landscapes devoid of any human life. For example, Barnard captured the wreckage of the Battle of Resaca by photographing shattered trees. He also superimposed clouds into the sky in his photographs. And whereas Gardner framed his reader's interpretation of his photographs by preceding each with his own caption, Barnard chose to let his photos stand on their own, publishing his own commentary separately.

Perhaps the most powerful photographs of the exhibit were contained in the room devoted to work of Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou. Here visitors saw photographed soldiers with horrific wounds. Bontecou captured these images and collected them as a medical teaching album. Many of the photographs feature hand-drawn arrows indicating the path of a bullet or projectile as it entered and exited human flesh. Around this gallery the curators placed quotes from poet and nurse Walt Whitman, explaining that the "real war will never get in the books."

I could comment on many other facets of this exhibit, but I am afraid I still could not do it justice. If you live near New York City, or happen to have an opportunity to visit, this exhibit is well worth setting aside a few hours for. Jeff L. Rosenheim, the Met's curator of Photography, along with the rest of the curatorial staff, has put together an excellent exhibit. Photography and the American Civil War remains on view through September 2nd.

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