Photos Bring The Civil War Into New Light

NOMA exhibit examines photography on the battlefields of the Civil War

By John D’Addario | The New Orleans Advocate

2014 will mark the 150th anniversary of several key events of the Civil War, including the devastating battles at Spotsylvania and the Wilderness and Gen. William T. Sherman’s capture of Atlanta and “March to the Sea.”

And if names like these — along with Antietam, Gettysburg, Shiloh and Bull Run — seem more immediate to us than they were a century and a half ago, we have the then-nascent medium of photography to thank for it.

Untold numbers of photographs of these and other battles were produced during the Civil War, along with portraits of those affected by the conflicts, images supporting the Abolitionist cause, and pictures of President Abraham Lincoln and other political and military figures. As a result, the Civil War is incalculably more vivid to many Americans than it would have been had it taken place before the invention of photography.

This month, 200 images and objects will go on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art in “Photography and the American Civil War,” opening Jan. 31.

Organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, where it was on view last year, the exhibition examines both the crucial role photography played in documenting the Civil War and how the history of photography in turn was affected by its role in recording it.

“There have obviously been many museum exhibitions about the Civil War,” said Russell Lord, curator of photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art, “and how photography was used as an illustrative device to record historical events. But this is the first one that focuses on how the war transformed photography as a medium as well.”

Invented barely two decades before the Civil War began in 1861, photography was used for many purposes by both sides in the conflict: as propaganda, as documentation, as souvenirs and for military reconnaissance and strategy.

From that point on, it would be increasingly common for photography to be used in those ways.

“But what (Metropolitan Museum photography curator) Jeff Rosenheim has done in organizing the show,” Lord said, “is include many different kinds of photographic production. So the exhibition isn’t just a bunch of two-dimensional images on walls.”

Accordingly, the exhibition will include examples of many different kinds of photo-based objects produced during the war, including cartes-de-visites — inexpensive small photos, usually portraits, mounted on thick paper — presidential campaign buttons, a chess board featuring Abraham Lincoln and generals of the Union Army, and even a camera used by Mathew J. Brady, probably the best-known Civil War photographer.

“The selection runs the gamut from important artistic photographs to anonymous snapshots and portraits,” Lord said. “A huge focus of the exhibition is the roles that memory and nostalgia play through these objects, many of which are small and intimate and meant to be held.”

Visitors to NOMA won’t be able to handle any of the objects themselves. But Lord explained that the exhibition’s designers have created displays that emphasize the three-dimensionality of many items.

There’s a separate admission charge for the “Photography and the American Civil War” show, which the museum says is due to the “increased cost” of bringing in an exhibition from another institution.

There are many moments in “Photography and the American Civil War” that justify the price of admission.

Lord points to a series of rooms containing portraits of soldiers that trace how their lives were affected by the war. “The changes on their faces (are) incredibly powerful,” he said.

“We tend to think of war in terms of numbers and figures and not of the individual lives that were affected by it,” Lord said. “But the photographs in this show give a palpable sense of lived experience. That is what’s so powerful about photography.”