History of Photography in Civil War

The topic of the essay is history of photography in the Civil War. The aim of the paper is to study the history of American photography, the stages of its development, as well as the development of documentary photography during the Civil War. To study these questions, seven sources are used in the paper. All sources are reliable and fully depict the history of American photography in the middle of the XIX century. At that time, such photographers as Matthew Brady and Alexander Gardner made a great contribution to the development in this form of art. With the help of these photographers people could know the real truth of terrible events during the Civil War. It is considered that the American Civil War was among the first military conflicts that were documented with the help of the camera. 

The art of photography appeared in the 1830s and gained the wide recognition a decade later. The history of photography in the United States is strikingly similar to the history of the country. Both are relatively young and in the beginning, both largely depended on the development of ideas and events in Europe. A young country followed Europe in the visual arts mastering European knowledge and experience. The first half-century passed in the struggle between the desires of photographers to achieve success and disabilities of the camera. By the 1890s, a purely practical approach to photography began to replace the desire for the emotional and intellectual content. Before getting recognition as an art deserving love and respect, photography should be filled with the significant content and gain credibility to its amazing and unique abilities. As soon as these two conditions were satisfied due to creative achievements of photographers, photography in the United States has become a viable form of art, free from the influence of the European predecessors. Documentary photos of the time of the Civil War played a significant role in the study of the war and the development of photography. Photos of the American Civil War of 1861-1865 are among the most significant in the history of war photography. The aim of the paper is to study the development of photography as a form of art in the period of the Civil War in the United States. 


Fundamentals of the History of American Photography in the XIX Century

The history of American photography began in France where scientists invented a method for producing images by mechanical means. In 1839, Louis Daguerre introduced a method of producing daguerreotype to the French Academy of Sciences. The first American who presented a new art of photography to the public was an inventor and professor of chemistry John Locke. It happened in a small bookshop in the Medical College of Ohio. Photography developed in the United States with the help of many people. One of them is Samuel Morse – an inventor of the telegraph and a publisher of the New York Observer. He became interested in the new art in March 1839. He was one of those who brought this form of art to the United States from France. Samuel Morse met Louis Daguerre in Paris. Morse was the author of the first landscape made in America using the technique of photography. In subsequent years, daguerreotypes captured the imagination of Americans. Many scientists became to develop it further. Inexperienced people were inclined to see it as magic especially in the early years of the advent of photography. During the origin and propagation of photography in the United States, the main centers of its development were Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In the 40s, the first photo studios began to appear. Portraits and family photos became a popular genre. In the XIX century, fine art photography also became extremely popular. Albert Sands Southworth and Joshua Johnson Howes rapidly developed this genre. They were innovators of photography as they tried to bring it to the level of art. In the middle of the century XIX century, documentary photography also became extremely widespread. Photos from the battlefields of the Civil War are especially memorable.

The Main Stages of the Development of Photography

During the XIX century, there were general trends of the development of the new art in the United States. The first stage is a stage of documentary photography. It stands at the crossroads of art and history. There were the Civil War photos and portraits of statesmen. In many ways, America was terra incognita, and photography became a way of its studies. There were images of the Wild West and the North American Indians. The second stage was a reflection of photography as a new art form. The visual image included the aesthetic message. Mass photo is the third stage of photography spreading in the United States.

Documentary Photography during the Civil War

In the writings on the history of photography, traditionally two military conflicts shot photographically are called an early example of the military photo essay – Crimean War (1853-1856) and the American Civil War (1861-1865). These reports were not the only precedents of military photos between in the middle of the XIX century. However, they were the most expressive. Crimean photos of Roger Fenton and the vast panorama of the war between North and South compiled under the direction of Matthew Brady were among the first to identify many specific questions for the photo essay – reliability, interpretation, and propaganda. In the book The Civil War: A Visual History, it is stated that “The American Civil War was the first conflict to be thoroughly documented by the camera”. Photographs of the American Civil War depict the story of a man at war.

When the Civil War began, photographs received new opportunities. Matthew Brady was the first who saw them. Many photographers took photos of the war, especially northerners. Matthew Brady was the main organizer of the process. He was a famous photographer. The author Jeff Rosenheim mentions that “He was the most famous photographer working in the United States”. He opened several flourished photo studios in New York and Washington and issued a series of albums with portraits of prominent citizens of the country. Matthew Brady was one of the most important figures of the early stages of the development of photographic art. He was a visual chronicler of the Civil War. In the book, American Photography, the author states that “Brady was a new kind of historian”. He is considered the father of photojournalism. Matthew Brady made several internationally renowned photos. One of them depicts the soldiers of the federal troops who fell on the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was made in 1863.

Received the government permission, Matthew Brady sent some of his photographers to the front. In the book The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography, the author states that “Matthew Brady organized nearly twenty photographers to produce more than 10,000 thousand negatives of the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865”. Photographers equipped horse-drawn vans like laboratories, and photojournalists went to perpetuate the Civil War. However, although they saw and even photographed the battle at the very front edge, the wet collodion process, which required prolonged exposure, could not record the movement. In such a way, dynamics of the fighting remained not photographed. Nevertheless, even the images of ruins and battlefields littered with corpses and abandoned equipment clearly illustrated a terrible face of the war with the omnipresent and constant attributes – guns, warships, cores, and grapeshot. Photographers from Brady’s group recorded engineering achievements, builders of railroads and bridges, and installation of telegraph wires. When the front moved, they diligently photographed fortifications, blockhouses, armories, and breastworks. They shot the ruins of the South – the ruined Fort Sumter and homeless people from Charleston and Richmond as a kind of decoration in the form of ruins. Their photos were serious and severe, whether it was the image of the universal destruction, special buildings, energetic soldiers or strict headquarters. They involved a dispassionate view of the destruction and the realization of their inevitability.

Matthew Brady shot the first military photos himself, for example, photos of defeat at Ball Run. From this battle, he returned with his van and several negatives that press praised as good evidence. People sold them for woodcuts and illustrations. Matthew Brady created the first photographic news agency. In the twilight, he prepared glass plates for the stereoscopic camera. Brady and his people learned to find and shoot the terrible naturalistic photos of the war. Battlefields with the bodies of killed soldiers were a bitter picture of violent events. He and his comrades made many sad and pathetic photos. In Richmond, Matthew Brady visited General Robert E. Lee, whom he photographed in Washington. He persuaded the head of the Confederate Army to be photographed with his son and an assistant behind the house. It is one of the greatest historical photos of Matthew Brady. Many historians note Brady’s photos helped discover new facts about the tragic events during the Civil War.

Matthew Brady intended to sell taken pictures in a form suitable for viewing in a stereoscope. Stereoscopes were extremely widespread in the United States. The number of people who wanted to get acquainted with the surrounding world looking at different stereo pairs grew continuously. Stereo pairs are two images placed side by side – one for the right and one for the left eye. There was an illusion of volume if to see them in the stereoscope. The camera was very useful for stereo pairs. It was only necessary to take a picture and then move the camera to 6.5 cm and make the second shot. Soon, there were special stereoscopic cameras with two lenses. They allowed doing both exposures at the same time. The turnout of stereo pairs became an extremely profitable business in the United States, as well as portraits. With the help of stereo pairs, photographers took pictures of the events of the Civil War. However, some photographers related to the manufacture of stereo pairs with the utmost care. They were able to combine lighting, composition, and methods of shooting for the best photo. Stereo pairs serve a valuable testimony of the life of the country during its maturation.

Another photographer of that time was Alexander Gardner. His famous photographs are the Civil War photos, Lincoln’s photo, as well as photos of the conspirators who committed the assassination of President Lincoln and the attempt on Secretary of State – William Henry Steward. John Hannavy mentions that “In the years before and during the Civil War, Gardner made his greatest contributions to photography with his many portraits of Lincoln ”. Alexander Gardner entered the history as a talented photographer, who along with Matthew Brady initiated military photos. Gardner is considered one of the best war photographers. He is certainly one of the few who had the honor of shooting the first Republican president of America. At first, he was among the photographers who together with Matthew Brady went to the front. However, later, he became an independent war correspondent. 

The main thing that Alexander Gardner brought in the military photograph was views of the consequences of the devastating war. He was among the first photographers who started shooting devastated battlefields with not interred bodies. For example, a photo that the photographer shot in two days after the battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, won the recognition of the public. Prior to that, none of the battlefields was photographed before the dead soldiers were interred. Sometimes Alexander Gardner sinned against the documentary truth dragging corpses to make more spectacular photos. However, even with this fact, photos made an unbelievable impression.

The limited possibilities of photography of the middle of the XIX century determined the choice of the object and the method of shooting. During the Civil War, the photographic equipment was very far from the present one. In the era of wet-plate collodion, work of the photojournalist implied the need to carry the bulky equipment – cameras for normal and stereographic photography, glass plates for negatives, and chemicals. Photographers prepared large-size (12- and 24-inch) negatives immediately prior the beginning of shooting as emulsion based on collodion retained sensitivity for only several minutes.

In the wet-plate collodion process, the plate covered with liquid collodion should be developed until collodion dried. This process added additional difficulties to the photographer of that time. Moreover, the photographer was also limited in speed and freedom of movement with a bulky camera. The photographer had to dip the plate into solution in a mobile laboratory, run to the camera, keep exposure for a few seconds, run back into the tent, develop the plate and prepare a new one. There are cases when the soldiers of both warring parties took the photographic equipment for a new type of the weapon. The camera was big, and exposure was from 3 to 30 seconds. Obviously, it was too long to shoot fast-moving objects or courses of the battle. Photos of Civil War did not show battles but their preparation and consequences. Therefore, the war pictures of those times were the images of engineering structures and fortifications, as well as portraits of commanders, officers, and soldiers. Photography of the Civil War brought severe views of death in the war in the expanding media space. Gardner with other photographers shot the most spectacular of them. The author Michael Varhola argues that “Photography in the 1860s exposed American families to the reality of war”. At the time, the photo was seen as the means of documentation of facts. 

During the Civil War, photos were not an instrument of political propaganda. In 1866, Alexander Gardner published the Photographic Sketch Book of the Civil War. In the album, there are no wins, celebration, inspiration, and righteous anger against the enemy. There are only pictures of military routine, everyday faces of soldiers, trenches, and fields littered with corpses. It is expected that some of these photos – in particular the famous photo of the Battle of Gettysburg depicting the battlefield at Gettysburg in July 1863 – was staged. The title of the photo is The Harvest of Death. If it is true, then the essence of the staging lies in the reconstruction of what the photographer saw and would like to show to others not embellishing or adding anything. The author of this photo was Timothy O’Sullivan – a famous military photographer of that time. 


Photographs of the Civil War are an early attempt of the reportage. At that time, photos served as evidence and the means of propaganda. Photos of Americans exceeded the most vivid verbal descriptions and dubious authenticity of prints. The war and its participants acquired the flesh. Photographing of the American Civil War is one of the most impressive projects in the history of the military photo reportage in the history of photography. It is also one of the most famous. An initiator and a director of the event was a successful portraitist Matthew Brady. He organized a group of photographers to shoot the tragic events of the war. They have entered the history as initiators of military photos that have an enormous importance for the study of the events during the Civil War in the United States. 

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