The Civil War Pictures: True or False?

Photography and the American Civil War

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, April 2–September 2, 2013; the Gibbes Museum of Art, Charleston, South Carolina, September 27, 2013–January 5, 2014; and the New Orleans Museum of Art, January 31–May 4, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition by Jeff L. Rosenheim
Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 278 pp., $50.00
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Alexander Gardner: The President [Abraham Lincoln], Major General John A. McClernand [right], and E.J. Allen [Allan Pinkerton, left], Chief of the Secret Service of the United States, at Secret Service Department, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, Near Antietam, October 4, 1862

Photography began as a craft technology that lent its resources to the imitation of an art—chiefly, at first, portrait and landscape painting—and like other devices of convenience, it easily adopted the name of its inventor. We no more associate the daguerreotype with a particular French painter than we connect the guillotine to a particular doctor, and this marks an initial difference from the high arts: it would be odd to imagine anyone ever talking of the poussinline or a rubensstroke without a vivid and characteristic idea of the discoverer himself. Photography was a tool like the telephone or the automobile; not, like the symphony or the twelve-tone system, an unmistakably aesthetic format. You looked at a photograph, if you were looking in the 1860s, with an eye trained by the conventional expectations of pictorial realism.

The claim of the new art was that it offered the most accurate rendering of a person, place, or thing. Also the most accessible: as Jeff L. Rosenheim tells us in Photography and the American Civil War—his splendid catalog of the exhibition on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—more than 25 million daguerreotypes had been produced in the United States by 1860. So Mathew Brady could rely on a seasoned audience when he took his photograph of Abraham Lincoln on February 27, 1860, dressed for the Cooper Union speech, where he would affirm the Republican Party’s stand against the expansion of slavery, and declare his faith that right makes might. “The tones,” wrote Noah Brooks in the Chicago Tribune of that evening’s performance, “the gestures, the kindling eye, and the mirth-provoking look defy the reporter’s skill.” None of those traits could have been plausibly inferred from Brady’s portrait; but there is a recessive strength in the eyes and a natural (not assumed) gravity of bearing that pay a compliment to the model. The picture served Lincoln well.

But the length of standing-still required for the exposure was never a pleasant exertion for him. In early October 1862, Brady sent one of his photographers, Alexander Gardner, to take a series of pictures at General George McClellan’s headquarters at Antietam; and Lincoln, whose disgust at McClellan’s failure to move his troops into battle was by then an open secret, commented on the arrangements for the group portraits: “General McClellan and myself are to be photographed tomorrow A.M. by Mr. Gardner if we can be still long enough. I feel Gen. M. should have no problem on his end but I may sway in the breeze a bit.”

The most theatrical presence in these photographs, however, is not the haughty McClellan but…

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