Written Presentation Paper #1
The Revolutionary Impact of Photography on the Civil War
The Civil War took place in 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This two-day battle marked a revolutionary period in history as war was being extensively documented for the first time. Through the use of technological advancements, photography was finally capable of documenting battle scenes as it occurred in real time. War photography marks the end of playful theory and the beginning of historical realism, as it redefined the meaning of what war is.
The practice of war photography was extremely difficult and limiting. It required the extensive preparation of a process known as wet plate photography. This process uses a glass plate negative that is coated in a tacky solution called collodion, which is a mixture of gun cotton and ether. The plate is then bathed in silver nitrate in order to make the glass light sensitive. Although wet plate photography was a much more inexpensive process when compared to daguerreotypes, it did pose many challenges for photographers at this time. One reason being in order to produce a successful photograph, the plate would have to be wet at the time of exposure. To do so, the photographer would have to have access to a darkroom upon taking the photograph. In the case of a war photographer, a horse-drawn wagon would have to be converted into a portable darkroom to allow the photographer to prepare his plates on the field.
The second reason why wet plate photography was difficult is the amount of preparation that was required for each image. A plate took about ten to fifteen minutes to prepare, with a thirty second-exposure time. Today, photography takes approximately a fraction of a second. Because the exposure time was so extensive, the camera was not yet capable of capturing live action shots because the image quality would result as a blur. It was because of this limitation that photographers were forced to think more critically and devise a solution as to how one can utilize the strengths and weaknesses of this tool.
In addition, the idea of war documentation had originally been defined by the standards of painters. Paintings were known for portraying war through moments of glory, dramatic battles scenes, and romanticized death scenes. However, as previously stated, photography was not yet capable of capturing moments such as these due to the camera’s limitations. Photographers were limited in their ability to portray the totality of war in not only its physical manifestation, but in its conceptual and emotional significance as well.
As a solution, photographers decided they were going to document war as it was viewed through their own eyes. In reality there were no dramatic heroic battle scenes, as it was depicted in paintings. Instead there were rotting corpses, shattered trees, soldiers in mud-covered uniforms injured or dying in the fields. Photographers transformed the limitations of their tools by creating a new style of realism, capturing moments as they occurred in actual time. Not only was this a new style of realism, but a new definition of the reality of war.
While photography of the 1860's would seem primitive by the technological standards of today, many of the famous Civil War photographers were producing sophisticated three-dimensional images known as stereographs. A stereographic camera is a device that aided in the making of realistic photographs. To create a stereo view, a twin-lens camera was used to capture the same image from two separate lenses. This process is similar to the way two human eyes capture the same image from slightly different angles on the head. Using the process of wet plate photography, two of the same images were produced on one glass plate then processed onto a viewing card. The image is then looked at through a device known as stereoscope. Stereoscopes were extremely popular at this time. This tool was used as a means of presenting vivid depictions of the war back to Americans at home. The amount of detail that was experienced through this viewing process added a new level of realism to photography.
But unfortunately, war photography at this time received a lot of misinformed press in terms of the skill level that was required to produce these images. It was concluded that anything having to do with the war was a fit subject for documentation. In doing so, the photographer would be relieved from ever having to think about the composition of the subject. However, the reality was quite the opposite. Influential war photographers such as Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan argued against these assumptions by proving war photography to be a much more complex subject due to the limitations of the camera. Photography changed the way war was interpreted by no longer blindly glorifying war, as previously done through painting, but rather embracing war for what it is– death.
Throughout the war, it was common for photographers to document the dead. One reason being the deceased made for an ideal subject due to the camera’s extensive exposure times. However, photographing a subject out of convenience due to the limitations of one’s tool was not always the reasoning behind documenting the dead. Gardner and O’Sullivan chose this specific subject matter in order to convey a deeper meaning of what war was to them. It was even known that Gardner and O’Sullivan would rearrange and pose the bodies of the decease in order to enhance the tragedy of war. They did so not with the intention of tricking the viewer, but rather as a way of showcasing the real costs of war by assisting the viewers to feel what it what they felt being physically present on the battlefield.
Gardner and O’Sullivan arrived in Gettysburg in 1863 to document the after math of the Civil War. The purpose of their journey was not to document the war as it took place, but rather, document the war as it ended. They believed if they photographed the horror that is the reality of war, then these photographs could potentially prevent the starting of future wars. It was thought that Gardner suspected that these images would receive the most attention from the public, since never before had Americans seen the dead on the battlefield. As a result these photographs have come to dominate the modern memory of the Civil War. It was from this moment on that battlefield photographs of the dead have become the reality of war.
In 1866, Gardner published these photographs in his book titled Sketch Book of the war. This two-volume opus featured one hundred of both Gardner and O’Sullivan’s photographs as they captured the war through the documentation of the decease. Gardner chose to pair each of the one hundred photographs with a title and a description. This was one of the first instances in history that text was being used as a visual cliché in order to metaphorically enhancing the significance of a photograph.
An example of this method was used in the titling of O’Sullivan’s photograph A Harvest of Death. This photograph, famous for its literary meaning, documents life after the battle is over. What makes this photograph so revolutionary is the fact O’Sullivan chose to not glorify war but rather embrace it for what it is– bloody, rotting, and dead.
Through technological advancements, photography has continued to enhance society’s perception of war. For the first time, people are given the truth. The documentation of the Civil War has marked the first period in history that Americans are given the opportunity to see their own soldiers dead as a result of war. This revolutionary shift in how war is defined represents a long and continuous tradition of American war photography. Images captured by influential photographers such as Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan foreshadows the way the definitions of this reality will shift with changing memories of the war. Seeing this extensive documentation will forever live as the memory of what war is– death; as stated by Gardner.
1. A Terrible Reality: Alexander Gardner's Photographs of the Dead. Library of Congress. 02 Mar. 2013. http://library.mtsu.edu/tps/Alexander_Gardners_Photographs_of_the_Dead.pdf.
2. Buckland Gail. "Indispensable, Photographs." American Herritage 55 (2004): 50-56. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 02 Mar. 2013. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6551346&site=ehost-live.
3. Klingsporn, Geoffrey. "Indispensable Photographscon of Real War: A Harvest of Death and American War Photography." Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television (2000): 4-19. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. 02 Mar. 2013 http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=6551346&site=ehost-live.
4. Timothy O'Sullivan. Xroads. 03 Mar. 2013. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma99/paul/tim/forhistoryframe.html.
5. "Civil War Trust." The Impact of Civil War Photos on the Public. 06 Mar. 2013. http://www.civilwar.org/resources/the-impact-of-civil-war.html.