Photography and the American Civil War is more than just a history lesson. There’s plenty of good stuff here for Civil War buffs and vintage photography enthusiasts, but what this exhibition really highlights is the people, both those in front of the camera and those behind it, all of them touched in one way or another by the bloody War Between the States.
“Really, all war is horrific,” says Russell Lord, the Curator of Photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). “But I think those that have taken place since the inception of photography seem that much more so.”
The Civil War was one of the earliest wars photographed. In the 1850s, wet-plate methods of photography made photography much more accessible to the public, as ambrotypes and tintypes were cheaper, faster, and more durable than the daguerreotypes that came before them. After the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1861, photographers started documenting all aspects of the war, from portraits of soldiers, to body-strewn battlefields, to grisly injuries from field hospitals.
Last year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York premiered Photography and the American Civil War, which includes over two hundred photographs curated by the Met’s Jeff Rosenheim. The show traveled to the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina, and makes a final stop in New Orleans this month.
Pam Wall, the Curator of Exhibitions at the Gibbes Museum, says the show was very successful in Charleston, and its appeal went beyond the usual Civil War crowd. In an era of Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitpic, photography has become as much a means of communication as a means of documentation, and Wall believes that contemporary viewers are drawn not just to the photographs, but also to the stories behind them.
“The objects themselves are so personal,” says Wall. “To think that they were sent home to a mother or a sweetheart--someone who cherished these photographs--is something that really resonates with people, especially since photography is so much a part of our everyday lives and something that we all understand and can connect with.”
The photographs reveal a human side of the war, and the human cost for those engaged. The harsh realities are visible in portraits of young soldiers at the beginning of the war compared to portraits of the battle-hardened men that emerged as the war waged on; in photographs of slave children in New Orleans, pictures that were sold as part of donation campaigns to support education for freed slaves and so-called “colored” troops; in photographs taken by field surgeons to document the injuries that soldiers incurred in battle, used by doctors as teaching tools.
“It’s very difficult material to view,” says Wall. “The toll that the war took, these photographs make that real in a very difficult way.”
Wall describes one of her her favorite photographs in the show, a picture of a woman holding a hinged case containing portraits of two men.
“We don’t know who she is, and we don’t know who the men are, but presumably they’re family members, loved ones who are away at war,” says Wall. “For me—as a woman, as a wife and a mother—I can imagine being in her shoes and being the one holding these photographs and hoping that these men come back safely. That’s definitely one that always tugs at me when I walk past it in the gallery.”
These days, the idea of carrying around a framed portrait of a loved one is, at least for a generation raised on digital photography, a quaint, antiquated notion. Lord, the curator at NOMA, believes that’s also part of the show’s appeal, as Photography and the American Civil War highlights what he calls the “objecthood” of analog photography by including pieces that exemplify the physical nature of photography in the 1860s, ranging from small carte de visite portraits, to large albums of collected photographs, to campaign buttons and photographic jewelry.
“The rise of digital media marks what we might call the waning physicality of the photograph,” says Lord. “I think that transformation has made a lot people very nervous, and for many years a number of critics and scholars and artists have been arguing that this moment represents the death of photography.”
Lord is quick to call that line of reasoning “a bad argument,” and he asserts that digital photography is just another evolution in the history of photography, one that’s arguably as important as the technological developments highlighted in Photography and the American Civil War. Nonetheless, Lord acknowledges that many young artists around the country and around the world are experimenting with old techniques—including ambrotypes, tintypes, and daguerreotypes—as a reaction to seemingly fleeting nature of digital photography.
“A lot of people are stressing the objecthood of the photographs precisely because we’re in a moment where that objecthood is in many ways disappearing,” says Lord. “In this show, photos are objects that people clung to.”
Photography and the American Civil War runs at the New Orleans Museum of Art through May 4, 2014.
Brad Rhines writes in New Orleans, LA. Follow him on twitter.
All images copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art