It’s odd to think of war as a way for photographers to hone their skills. In the Spring of 1861 when the American Civil War broke out, it presented photographers with just such an opportunity. Initially, people thought the war would be won quickly (particularly those in the North.) Photographers figured they could make images of heroic soldiers and easily sell them to collectors and the media to mark the historic occasion. As we now know, the American Civil War was anything but swift and bloodless. It incurred over 620,000 deaths, making it easily America’s bloodiest war.
Early on in the war, Matthew Brady sought to capitalize on the event. Brady was a studio portrait photographer. He employed a group of 20 photographers and sent them all out into the battle fields. Together they amassed over 7,000 negatives of the war. Their coverage was the most complete of any event up until that time. It is the reason we think of Brady when we think of the Civil War.
One of Brady’s men, Alexander Gardner, was put in charge of Brady’s Washington, D.C. Studio. One of his jobs was to print and distribute the photos that all the men were making under Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery. The photos carried the credit: “photograph by Brady”. As the war got underway, Gardner joined General McClellan’s staff as a civilian photographer. One of his first battle pictures were of the battle of Antietam. Gardner’s photographs were brutal. It was the first time the public would see the actual horrors of war. He effectively rid the world of the romantic writer’s notion of a noble battlefield death. Eventually, Gardner’s photos from Antietam were displayed in Brady’s New York City gallery but with a catch. The photos were reported on in papers and reproduced with entitlement to Matthew Brady, the studio owner.
Although crediting photographs this way was a common practice at the time, Gardner and other battlefield photographers began voicing their displeasure with the setup. They had risked their lives, worked extremely hard, and pushed their craft to their limits. Receiving no credit for their hardships was wearing on them. Gardner’s final solution was opening his own Washington DC studio in 1863. Many of Brady’s top photographers followed to Gardner’s studio where Gardner insisted that each photographer receive credit for their work.
Essentially, Gardner’s move to autonomy began setting the tone for the public to acknowledge that photographers are not generic button pushers. They have individual visions. Their photographs were worthy of signatures, just like other visual arts of the day: painting and drawing.
Gardner also set precedent with his war photos that it was “okay” for photographers to adjust the scene before taking a photo and still having it be in the family of “documentation.” One of his most famous photos was his “home of a Rebel Sharpshooter.” He moved the deceased, repositioned his head, then added a musket to the scene. Gardner pointed out that if a studio photographer can arrange their client in the photo for a particular effect, and that the image that studio photographer took was considered reality, then what he was doing in his photographs in the field was no different.
While Gardner never produced the prolific 7,000+ negatives of the war like Brady did under his name, Gardner did provide the public with an incredible book documenting the war called “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of The War”. It sold for $150 (a phenomenal amount of money in 1866). In it, Gardner had his photographs as well as text about the photos. The tone of the text was very pro North/Union and took a moralistic tone against the South/Confederacy. In a true sense, it was propaganda for the Union cause reinforcing the righteousness of the Union while emphasizing the evil of the Confederacy. Given that the South did not have the economic means to fund photographers to cover the war (nor as widespread press industries like New York City), war photos from the South’s perspective were rare. The lack of a Southern point of view to the public only contributed to believing that the North’s views of the war were correct.
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