Review: Photography And The American Civil War

D. Eric Bookhardt on vintage photos now on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art

By D. Eric Bookhardt | Gambit Weekly

This review originally appeared here

It was America’s bloodiest war — brother against brother fighting to the bitter end. We grew up hearing that, and if it sounds overhyped, consider that its toll of 750,000 lives was nearly twice the number of American soldiers killed in World War II, our second bloodiest war. This exhibition, organized by former New Orleanian and now Metropolitan Museum of Art photography curator Jeff L. Rosenheim, features more than 200 vintage photos of the Civil War and its warriors, providing us with a visual overview of a period of extraordinary transition in American history. Not only was it a painful rebirth of the republic after being nearly sundered by secession, it was also the beginning of photojournalism as we know it. Photography was barely 20 years old when the Civil War began, and here we see the startling earnestness with which the mostly young soldiers gaze into the camera lens, as well as implicit stagecraft that inevitably attends any visual depiction of momentous events. The result is a high-contrast collision of idealism and horror with a dash of old-fashioned hucksterism.

Military portraits were a hot consumer item in a country filled with men going off to war, so photo studios proliferated. Maybe it had to do with 19th-century styles, but subjects like Captain Charles A. and Sergeant John M. Hawkins, Georgia Volunteer Infantry (pictured) exude a charisma that would be hard to replicate today. It makes for a stark contrast to the ghastly scenes of shredded fabric and flesh rotting on the protruding bones of soldiers where they fell, sometimes in great numbers, in pastures drenched with blood. Many news photographs were attributed to Mathew Brady who, true to the spirit of enterprise, was really more of an executive who affixed his signature to the work of his camera-wielding surrogates. These remarkable documentary photographs and studio portraits provide both objective and subjective insights into an epic conflagration that haunts us to this day.