This exhibition is very interesting and also somewhat disappointing.
Inevitably, among the over 200 photographs relating to a vast defining event, the American Civil War, some are powerful in the way one would expect — photos of battlefields, of prisoners, of the injured and dead, and of the destruction the war wrought on all sides. In sheer numbers, however, the weight of the exhibition is skewed toward studio portraits,
small tintypes and cartes de visite, as well as formally made medical photographs of ghastly war injuries. So many “indoor” photos take away from the sense of the huge scale of events and the truth of a war fought for overarching issues by hordes of men on famous fields of battle.
Many kinds of intimate scenes of the daily lives and experiences of Confederate and Union soldiers are sparsely represented or not at all. There are none representing the draft riots in NYC which turned murderous (for a recent play about these, Banished Children of Eve. Also, there seems to be an avoidance of some of the most dramatically powerful Civil War Photos in favor of lesser known ones, even if by well known photographers. It’s admirable to use an exhibition to extend viewer’s knowledge, but what may seem “iconic images” to Civil War buffs or photography experts are unfamiliar to a host of 2013 museum goers; many of the greatest photographs aren’t on this exhibition’s walls which — combined with sense of too many formal portraits — make the exhibition less compelling than it might have been.
Still, there’s a lot to see, absorb, and think about. Speaking of cartes de visites — those small photos made in multiples that could be given to friends and others — one of the most powerful works in the show is that of
Sojourner Truth, the name she took for herself, who, escaping from slavery in 1826, became an active abolitionist as well as advocate for prisoners’ and women’s rights (for her astonishing autobiography click here). In a switch of powerful irony, she — who had at 9 years been sold in a slave auction — sold a photograph of herself to raise money to aid freedmen; hence her caption, “I sell the Shadow to Support the Substance.”
Today’s political campaign buttons don’t have portraits because we have plenty of opportunity to know what candidates look like. When Abraham Lincoln ran for President, people were less bombarded with images so face recognition was part of the game, as seen in this 1860 presidential campaign medal with Abraham Lincoln’s portrait — before he grew his beard.
Photography was brand new at the start of the Civil War — its conventional beginning date is 1848 — and yet there were approximately 1,000 photographers on hand to capture all aspects — yes, more than here represented — of the War. 750,000 men died in the course of it — 20% of those who fought and about 2.5% of the total population — and photographers, such as Timothy O’Sullivan, photographed the dead on the battlefield, with no attempt to censor images that might “disturb” the populace as happened for a time during the war in Iraq; on the contrary, photographer Matthew Brady, for whom O’Sullivan worked, was celebrated for an exhibition in 1862 in New York for bringing home war’s reality.
Many survivors came home maimed, and the exhibition has a remarkable number of medical photographs taken by Dr. Reed Brockway Bontecou and included in his private medical teaching album.
The tintypes, though both overabundant and at the same time somewhat lost in an exhibition of Photography and the American Civil War, are fascinating and would merit a small exhibit of their own where one could absorb each of them without distraction. Many are staged: soldiers, newly enlisted and off to war, would have their photos taken in uniform and with weapons (often photographers’ prop). They’re idealized — all look handsome and on the ready, drawing their swords, etc., and they convey all the virtues of courage, intelligence and ethical strength, as in the portraits of Charles and John Hawkins. Here and there among them one catches a more intimate glimpse into personality, as in the portrait of a Union private; looking in to his expressive eyes, one wonders how he fared.
The exhibition succeeds in making the point that it is important to look beyond the famous photographer Matthew Brady to appreciate the many other talented photographers with names less known or anonymous active in photographing the Civil War. As an exhibition, Photography and the American Civil War is neither comprehensive nor unified by a particular focus, and its decisions seem somewhat idiosyncratic — but it’s history, our history, and well worth seeing.
“Photography and the American Civil War” runs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art” through September 2.
*Photo captions(from top):
- Unknown artist, Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Company E, “Tom Cobb Infantry,” Thirty-eighth Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861-62. Quarter-plate ambrotype with applied color, David Wynn Vaughan Collection. Photo: Jack Melton.
- Unknown artist, Sojourner Truth,” I Sell the Shadow to Support the Substance,” 1864. Albumen silver print (carte de visite) from glass negative, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2013, Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
- Unknown Artist, after an 1860 carte de visite by Mathew B. Brady, Presidential Campaign Medal with Portraits of Abraham Lincoln and Hannibal Hamlin, 1860. Tintypes in stamped brass medallion, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Overbrook Foundation Gift, 2012. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
- Timothy O’Sullivan, Alexander Gardner, printer, Field Where General Reynolds Fell, Gettysburg, July 1863.
Reed Brockway Bontecou, Union Private John Parmenter, Company G, Sixty-seventh Pennsylvania Volunteers, June 21, 1865. Albumen silver print from glass negative, carte de visite, Collection Stanley B. Burns, M.D. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
- Unknown Artist, Union Private, 11th New York Infantry (also known as the 1st Fire Zouaves), May-June 1861. One-sixth plate ambrotype, Michael J. McAfree Collection. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.
- Alexander Gardner, Ruins of Gallego Flour Mills, Richmond, 1865. Albumen silver prints from glass negatives, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933. Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.