A Must See Exhibit at the Met, ‘Photography and the American Civil War!’

An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photography and the American Civil War (1861-1865), is one I’d love to see, but probably won’t, since I live in Austin and can’t make it to New York by September 2nd (Exhibit dates: April 2-September 2). I hear the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is quite good though and will order it through the Met bookstore.

The exhibit has 200 photographs from the Civil War (Jeff L. Rosenheim is the curator), but the web page has published 50 of them for our viewing, so we can get a good cross-section of what’s available.

I would think the catalogue will have a total index of the images, because I want to consider everything they have. I’m not complaining though, I have plenty to get me started, while I scheme up a plan to fly my bones up to New York, so I can spend a day or two examining carefully all 200 images.

robert e lee
Robert E. Lee Photographer: Mathew B. Brady, 1865, Gilman Collection, albumen silver print from glass negative.

I did some good prep work last night, however, reading several reviews of Photography and the Civil War (War Images, Revealing and Holding Back, by Ken Johnson – New York Times and The War Between the Lensmen, by Richard B. Woodward – The Wall Street Journal).

Another good link I looked at (and printed a paper copy of) is the Wikipedia entry for Photographers of the American Civil War, which had short biographies of Andrew J. Russell, Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, Timothy O’Sullivan, James F. Gibson, John Reekie, and George S. Cook, a rare Southern photographer who captured the ruins of Fort Sumter just as the conflict begins. Getting a grip on these ground-breaking image makers is essential prep work for a visit to the Met.

After studying over the most famous of the Civil War photographers (there were many other brave, yet unknown artisans practicing their craft), I went back to the Met page for some more viewing of the galleries, and got a clearer sense of some of the individual photographer’s best work; a good example, is John Reekie’s A Burial Party, Cold Harbor, which shows African Americans burying the dead (a wagon is brimmed with bones and skulls) in the aftermath of Cold Harbor (May 31-June 12, 1864). The starkest of scenes imaginable!

Well, not too fast; the web page also includes A Harvest of Death, by Timothy O’Sullivan, which vividly gives you rotting corpses strewn on a stark landscape, days after the conclusion of Gettysburg. This albumen silver print from a glass negative was published in Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (1865-66), which is known for giving credit to the eleven field photographers, who did the hard work of documenting these grizzly battle scenes. It ought to be noted, Mathew Brady would take credit for other’s work.

While all the images are interesting, as well as the process itself, as it stood only twenty years into the history of photography (this requires a good deal of study of the various forms of this new technology, such as albumen prints, daguerreotypes, tintypes, ambrotypes, and stereographs), I take a particular interest in Lincoln’s assassination, which was photographed mostly by Alexander Gardner. One image caught my eye; a broadside advertising a $100, 000 reward for the murderer of the President, John Wilkes Booth!

It occurred to me, broadsides were the equivalent of promotions on Facebook today. I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the importance of this Met exhibition; I want to experience every image! Do we see something different than what our history books have told us?