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History Through Photography

By Adèle Bossard

“Union Private, Eleventh New York Infantry (First Zouaves),” Unknown Artist, 1861.

Next July will mark the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Battle of Gettysburg and it is soon after the hit of Steven Spielberg's last movie “Lincoln.” Now the Met Museum offers, in its turn, to explore the Civil War, this time through the lens of a camera.

“Presidential Campaign Medal with Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, Unknown artist after an 1860 carte de visite portrait by Mathew B. Brady, 1860.

With “Photography and the American Civil War,” on view through September 2, 2013, the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores the bloodiest war of American history through the lens of a newborn medium, since the first photograph of history was taken less than 50 years before the Civil War began.

The museum has compiled more than 200 poignant photographs that capture the four-year war from beginning to end. From Mathew B. Brady, known as the photographer of the North, to George S. Cook, known as the one of the South, the exhibition displays shots by four dozen of named photographs and countless unknown artists.

The beginning of the war is illustrated with dozens of portraits of soldiers. The evolution of the civil war seems to have followed the emergence of popular photography. As the prices lowered and the quality rose, portraiture moved from a luxury to a necessity, leading the combatants in uniform to pose for carte-de-visite pictures. The exhibition displays dozens of these wallet-size photos, both from North and South. It offers to put names to the faces of the more than three million soldiers who fought during the Civil War (Two million for the United States, one million for the Confederate States).

In the mean time, world's first photographic campaign buttons were distributed to the population. They were used by the four political parties (Republican, Southern Democratic, Constitutional Union and Democratic parties) battling out for the presidential election. Those buttons consisted of miniature tintype images and displayed a tiny photograph of the candidate on one side and an image of the vice-presidential candidate on the reverse.

“Field Where General Reynolds Fell,” Gettysburg by Timothy O'Sullivan, July 1863. “A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” by Timothy O'Sullivan, July 1863.

One of the most enthralling parts of the exhibition is the large collection of battlefield snapshots, notably the one from Mathew B. Brady, who set up the first gallery exhibition of Civil War photographs, “The Dead of Antietam,” in 1862 in his New York City gallery. At this time, the New York Times wrote: “In all the literal repulsiveness of nature, lie the naked corpses of our dead soldiers side by side in the quiet impassiveness of rest... The enterprise, the perseverance and courage, physical and pecuniary, which suggest to and encourage an artist in such work as this, establish for him forever a reputation such as no flattery, no claptrap can secure.”

“I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” by Sojourner Truth, 1864. “Emancipated Slaves Brought from Louisiana” by Colonel George H. Banks, December 1863.

In reality, most of Brady's photographs come from the photographers he employed, such as Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan or George N. Barnard. The result is nonetheless appalling and the pictures of Antietam's battlefields where dead bodies lie speak for themselves. The quality of the photographs is also really impressive for the period, as seen in the exactness of the lines and the accurate contrast of the colors. Pictures of the same kind were taken during the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) which involved some 160,000 soldiers for three days and marked the turning point of the Civil War. See below the stunning shots by Timothy O'Sullivan.

During the four-year “Freedom War,” as it was called by the Black southerners, came the ratification of the thirteenth amendment that abolished slavery in December 1865. Almost 200,000 African-Americans served in the Union Army and both free and runaway slaves joined the fight. The exhibition illustrates the first steps of those emancipated slaves, posing for their first portraits. It also pays tribute to Sojourner Truth and her iconic portrait entitled “I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.” An antislavery activist, she claimed to own her image, her “shadow,” and therefore sold photographs of herself to raise money to educate and support emancipated slaves.

“Union Private John Parmenter, Company G, Sixty-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers,” by Reed Brockway Bontecou.

The part of the exhibition dedicated to medical portraits of the wounded and sick will send shivers down your spine. Taken by Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou, the album contains 570 medical teaching images. The pictures were shot when soldiers arrived from the field, before and after the surgeries and upon recovery. They still express today, 150 years later, an impressive reality.

A final room is dedicated to the end of the war and Lincoln's assassination. It is essentially organized as a memorial, featuring for instance the first photographically illustrated “Wanted” poster that led to the capture of Lincoln's murderer, John Wilkes Booth, and Alexander Gardner's exclusive views of the hanging of the conspirators.



If you go:
“Photography and the American Civil War”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
April 2 to September 2, 2013
Hours: Tues, Wed, Thurs, Sun: 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM
Fri, Sat: 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM
Closed Mondays
Admission (recommended): $25 gen. adm., $17 seniors, $12 students, members and children free.



Adèle Bossard is a free lance writer from Saumur, France.


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