positive by Alexander Gardner
A Sharpshooter's Last Sleep, on Battle-field of Gettysburg.July, 1863
Captain A. J. Russell was the first and only photographer known to have held military rank in the United States army during the Civil War. In March 1863 he was assigned to the Construction Corps of the U.S. Military Railroad under General Herman Haupt as the group's official photographer. Russell's Bird’s Eye View of Bull Run Bridge is one of hundreds of photographs he produced to document Haupt's engineering feats and experiments involving railroad track and bridge construction, repair, and demolition.2 Highly valued by the military, these photographs were used to illustrate military engineering operations in Haupt’s official reports, copies of which were then employed as instructional guides by generals commanding similar units in the field.
Although his primary intent was to create documents that satisfied the military's needs, Russell was also concerned with the aesthetic potential of his images. Bird's Eye View is evidence of his keen sense of composition. While the elevated vantage point and strong contrasts of light and dark allow for the most detailed and complete view of the bridge repair, they also help define the bridge as a central design element around which the carefully balanced composition is organized.3 Images such as this—beautiful, yet technical in nature—mark the beginning of American industrial photography and foreshadow Russell's later and better-known work for the Union Pacific Railroad.
The photographs of Alexander Gardner and George Barnard were also seen as both documentary and artistic. In contrast to Russell, however, Gardner and Barnard were civilians and enjoyed a popular audience in addition to a military one, selling their work in the form of stereocards and cartes-de-visite.4 The resulting sales and profits were evidence of the public's intense interest in the war and, more important, its faith in the ability of the photograph to tell the terrible truth.
Although presented and perceived as factual documents, Gardner's and Barnard's photographs were often manipulated to achieve greater visual impact. While Gardner is known to have added props and moved corpses on the battlefield, Barnard often gave his landscapes dramatic skies by means of combination printing.5 These practices speak of the limitations of the wet-plate process and the photographers’ inability to document action. They also suggest that Barnard and Gardner were well aware of the power of photography and its ability to convey not only facts, but also ideas. This is most strongly evidenced in the photographic albums that each produced after the war.
Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War and Barnard’s Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign were both published in 1866 to memorialize the war effort.6 Although they differ in focus and format, the two books combine text and images to express a pro-Union view of the Civil War. Americans entered the struggle with a sense of romantic adventure, but graphic photographs soon made it clear how shockingly bloody and long the conflict would be. By sequencing their images and combining them with text, each photographer addressed the country's collective need to justify the war by softening the photograph's visual effect and reestablishing a sense of heroism and glory.
Gardner's two-volume album features one hundred albumen prints selected from a collection of three thousand taken by him and other photographers associated with him.7 The book by no means paints a complete picture of the war, but as its title suggests, offers a selection of sketches and firsthand impressions. The images depict the campaigns in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania and reflect Gardner's position as civilian photographer for the Army of the Potomac.
Ruins of Arsenal, Richmond, Va., April, 1865 is plate 91 of the Sketch Book's second volume, and like all of the other plates, is accompanied by a facing page of text. The view depicts the arsenal in the burnt district of war-torn Richmond—the symbolic heart of the confederacy. The utter devastation in this photograph gives the impression that the entire city was destroyed by the fires set by Confederates before their retreat; in fact, most of the city's historical landmarks, buildings, and churches survived the disaster, but Gardner's commentary makes no reference to this. The rubble and shattered buildings, like the ruins of a classical civilization, stand in strong contrast to the neatly piled shells in the foreground and middle ground, implying that Southern decadence would be replaced by the technology that helped the North win the war. The image and commentary are typical of the Sketch Book's theme of Confederate wrongdoing and divine retribution. Such a view justified the Union's actions, and in doing so, encouraged Union sympathizers, at least, to make sense of the war and put it behind them.
Barnard's album also attempts to ameliorate the horrors of war and encourage Northern pride, but does so by monumentalizing a single person and campaign rather than the entire conflict. Photographic Views of Sherman's Campaign features sixty-one albumen prints that sequentially march from Nashville to Charleston, “creating the illusion of an unstoppable force overturning everything in its path.”8 The album's accompanying text reinforces this idea by heroicizing Sherman and praising the North's system of warfare.9
Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain No. 2 exemplifies the album's strong focus on landscape as well as its meditative and introspective quality. In contrast to Gardner's photographs, in which men play a more active role, Barnard's views are strangely empty and silent, emphasizing reflection rather than action. The absence of fortifications and soldiers in this image suggests that it may have been taken after the war's end in 1866. In fact, Barnard returned to the Chattanooga area in the spring of 1866 to obtain views that the army's rapid movement in 1864 had made impossible. While the expansive view and elevated panorama reflect his experience as photographer for the Army of the Cumberland's Department of Engineers (which used his photographs as aids in completing maps to document decisive battles), they also represent Barnard's interest in the aesthetic potential of the sites he photographed.
In including scenes of natural beauty such as Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain No. 2, as well as images that depict landscapes ravaged by violent battle, Barnard's album becomes a powerful blend of past and present, death and healing. This tension is indicative of the complexity of Civil War photographs as they strove to be both objective documents and subjective impressions.
Allison Kemmerer, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 378-79
1. William F. Stapp, introduction to Landscapes of the Civil War from the Medford Historical Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), p. 18. In naming these four men, Stapp intentionally omits Mathew Brady, asserting that his personal contribution to the photography of the war was minimal. While Brady organized and employed many photographers (including Barnard and Gardner), he rarely took photographs himself. He did, however, place his name on all photographs made by his employees.
2. This particular photograph depicts the repair of the Bull Run railroad bridge in March 1863. The author is indebted to Susan Williams, A. J. Russell scholar, for providing this information as well as the facts about the destruction and repair of Bull Run Bridge.
3. For information on Russell's compositional devices, see Susan Danly Walter, “The Landscape Photographs of Alexander Gardner and Andrew Joseph Russell," (Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1983).
4. According to William Frassanito, there is evidence that Russell may have moonlighted for the E. & H. T. Anthony Co. by providing them with stereoviews. Nevertheless, he did not enjoy a popular audience to the extent that both Gardner and Barnard did as civilian photographers. See William A. Frassanito, Grant and Lee: The Virginia Campaigns, 1864-1865 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983), pp. 276, 314, 318, 324, 379.
5. For information on Gardner, see William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey in Time (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975), pp. 186-92. For Barnard, see Keith F. Davis, George N. Barnard: Photographer of Shermans Campaign (Kansas City, Missouri: Hallmark Cards, 1990), p. 103.
6. The Addison Gallery's collection includes Gardner's complete two-volume set and two images from Barnard's album: Chattanooga Valley from Lookout Mountain No. 2 and Nashville from the Capitol.
7. Gardner's album includes photographs by Timothy O'Sullivan, as well as by George Barnard, James Gardner, James F. Gibson, David Knox, William R. Pywell, W. Morris Smith, John Reekie, Wood, and David Woodbury.
8. Alan Trachtenberg, “Albums of War,” in Reading American Photographs (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989), p. 99.
9. Rather than provide a commentary for each image within the album as Gardner did, Barnard commissioned Theodore R. Davis to write a narrative, which Barnard published as a separate pamphlet with maps.
Marshall House, Alexandria.
Ruins at Masassas Junction.
Fortifications at Manassas.
Battery No. 1, near Yorktown—No. 1.
Battery No. 1, near Yorktown—No. 2.
Battery No. 4, near Yorktown.
Ruins of Norfolk Navy Yard.
Slave Pen, Alexandria.
Burnside Bridge, across Antietam Creek
Dunker Church, Battle-field of Antietam.
Scout and Guides to the Army of the Potomac.
Lacy House, Falmouth, Virginia.
Battery D, 2d U.S. Artillery, in action.
Pontoon Bridge, across the Rappahannock.
Evacuation of Aquia Creek.
A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
Gateway of Cemetery, Gettysburg.
Stone Church, Centerville.
Trossel's House, Battle-field of Gettysburg.
Provost Marshall's Office, Aquia Creek.
Castle Murray, near AUburn, Virginia.
General Post-Office, Army of the Potomac.
The Halt, scene near Culpeper.
Quaker Guns, Centerville
Ruins of Stone Bridge, Bull Run.
Mathews House, Battle-field of Bull Run.
Ruins at Manassas.
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