By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
“Photography and the American Civil War,” an exhibit of 200 photographs taken during the Civil War (1861 to 1865) opens at the New Orleans Museum of Art Friday. It’s a stunning collection that captures the magnetic horror of the war that defines America and the fractious politics that led to it.
If the Vietnam War was the television war, then the Civil War was the photography war. Photography had been in wide use for 20 years by the time Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. But immediate, outdoor documentary photography was new. Inexpensive photos printed on tin, paper and glass were the highest high tech of the time. The dreadful conflict that cost 620,000 American lives, drew photographers to the battlefields, hospitals and cemeteries.
For the first time in our collective memory, the unromantic texture of war was captured and sealed in amber for all time.
It was cold on Wednesday afternoon when NOMA’s photo curator Russell Lord met me at the museum’s security entrance. The winter storm had unexpectedly closed the museum for a full day, so the installation of the exhibit was delayed. A squad of art handlers was busy installing the precious photos in cases, adjusting lights and otherwise preparing the exhibition. The show was assembled by Tulane University graduate Jeff Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was a hit.
As Lord explained, seeing this many rare Civil War photographs in one place may be a once in a lifetime opportunity. As he led me through the forest of museum cases, the history of the War Between the States came into focus. Here are a few photos that called out as we wandered.
Near the entrance, look for the red, white and blue campaign ribbon that surrounds a tiny photograph of beardless presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln. Look for the photo of an abused slave. Look for the photos taken at Fort Sumter as the Confederate flag was raised. That huge wooden camera against the back wall belonged to the most famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady — it’s probably 100 times bigger than a smart phone.
As your eyes scan all the precious pocket photos of young soldiers in their snappy uniforms, consider that, in the end, photographs and memories are all their parents and wives would have left. Grant, Farragut, Custer and Booth all share the same case, just like they share the moment in history. The large selection of battlefield surgery photographs is as horrible as you’d imagine. It was just the beginning of the scientific study of trauma. Amputation was so common that a photo of a pile of limbs is titled “a morning’s work.”
Obviously, an exhibit of Civil War photos isn’t for the very young or squeamish.
Irony abounds. There are photographs taken in New Orleans of pale-skinned slave children, meant to illustrate the imprecision of racial identity. There’s a photo of a woman who posed as a Confederate soldier to join the war. There are photos of soldiers dressed in strange Middle Eastern costumes to express their ferocity. There’s a chess board with photos of generals on alternate squares — one, I believe is Union General Butler, who occupied New Orleans. There are photos of a slave auction house that’s been converted to a prison for Confederates. There’s a Union prisoner who is so emaciated that he looks like a World War II concentration camp survivor. There’s a tongue-in-cheek photo of a fake wooden cannon meant to fool the enemy. There’s a photo of dead horses blocking a road that perfectly bespeaks tragedy and regret.
Time compresses when you consider that New Orleans-born General P.G.T. Beauregard, who ordered the first shots of the Civil War, is celebrated by an equestrian statue near the entrance to the park and museum. Such is history.
Despite the subject matter, the Civil War photographs are often gorgeous. Burned warehouses, tents, cannons, ships and skeletons become sculpture. The show includes suites of mesmerizing works by Brady, George N. Barnard, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan.
Near the end of the show, there’s an eerie parallel. Look for the black mourning ribbon that, like campaign ribbon at the beginning of the show, includes a photo of Lincoln, who had been killed.
Unfortunately, the exhibit concludes with a crass gift shop that is certain to ruin the contemplative vibe. Avoid it, if possible. Instead, I recommend you decompress with a visit to New York artist Will Ryman’s “America” in a nearby gallery. The full-size gold-painted log cabin was inspired by Lincoln’s birthplace. Inside is a dizzying complex golden collage representing the industries that — for good and ill — shaped the country.
You’ll be primed to find compelling parallels between the historic photos and the post-modern commentary.