Documenting the Civil War: Some Famous Photographers


One element of photography that I learned while a student in photography school was that of photojournalism. However what really drew me in was the numerous images taken during the Civil War. As arduous a process as photography was in its infancy, there were no photography schools at the time, the development of photography in the 1830s and 1840s and many of the buddling practitioners the ability to practice their craft. With a new technology at their fingertips, many of the images produced during this area were mainly portraits. Yet once the Civil War started in 1861, many photographers immersed themselves in covering the war, producing photographs that have had a long-lasting effect.

With the Civil War having a nationwide reach, many photographers made a name for themselves covering the war, the most notable of them being Mathew Brady, who some consider one of the first photojournalists. One of the first individuals to open a studio and teach photography, Brady was an award-winning photographer, known for his portraits. During the Civil War, Brady had his employees traveling through the country to document the war; they traveled in carriages which served as portable dark rooms.

Using daguerreotypes at first, recent developments including the ambrotype and the albumen which was a paper print produced from large glass negatives that made it more convenient to document the war. Brady's first photographs of the war involved the Battle of Bull Run; since since the exposure time was very slow, no action photographs could have been produced, so many civil war images are of soldiers, portraits or images of the aftermath of battle. An exhibit of his photographs, The Dead of Antietam , was held in 1862 that shocked many observers who had never seen the horrors of war up close.

The overall experience of covering the war was dangerous; many thought the Civil War would last only a few weeks and people used to assemble gatherings where they bring picnic lunches and watch the battles with morbid curiosity.

While almost everyone in photography school was familiar with the work of Mathew Brady, there were many other equally distinguished Civil War photographers who took equal risks in covering the war and, in the end, created some extremely powerful images.

Alexander Gardner was actually an employee of Brady's who was brought on to cover the Union army under General George McClellan.Gardner took numerous photographs of the battles of Antietam and Fredericksburg. However, his most famous photograph is Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter , which was taken at Gettysburg and depicts a dead Confederate soldier lying behind a stone wall constructed between two huge boulders; the image has an eerie but peaceful quality of a soldier left alone to die. Even more horrific was when Gardner revisited the same spot during the conscration of Gettysburg Cemetery, to find the untouched, decomposing remnants of the soldier. Gardner was also responsible for the now famous 1862 image of Abraham Lincoln's visit to the Antietam battlefield as well as his portraits of the conspirators who had planned to assassinate Lincoln as well as their outstanding execution by hanging.

Other photographers who made an impact include Timothy O'Sullivan, who had worked with Brady at a young age and was one of his many associates to photograph the war, including the Siege of Petersburg and most notably The Harvest of Death , a grim image of the aftermath of Gettysburg in which dead soldiers are graphically strewn across the battlefield. O'Sullivan would later cooperate with Gardner in creating the first major publication of Civil War photographs, Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War , which appeared in 1866 and was one of the seminal texts I studied in photography school.

In the south, Confederate photographer George S. Cook, also an associate of Brady, earned praise for his wartime daguerreotypes of Charleston, South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia. In addition, Cook also gained notoriety for his images of Union prisoners and the destruction of Fort Sumter. However, his 1863 photographs of Federal ironclad ships bombarding Fort Moultrie in South Carolina are considered to be the first combat photographs ever taken.

Sadly, not all of the work of these (and many other) photographers survive, but what survives is a remarkable document of a harrowing time in American history. After extensive study of these photographs in photography school , I realized that The Civil War was instrumental in helping set the precedent for future photojournalism.


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