In 1856, a thirty-five-year-old Scotsman named Alexander Gardner arrived in New York City to begin employment as a photographer for Matthew Brady’s celebrated portrait studio. Gardner had worked hard all his life in Scotland, having been variously occupied as a jeweler, a journalist, and finally as a newspaper editor. But his hobby and passion was science, and in the evenings, he taught himself the rudiments of optics, chemistry, and mathematics. When the new art of photography came into its own in the 1840s and 1850s, it was only natural that Gardner would be drawn to the field, and he soon became as expert as any man could be in its techniques.
Matthew Brady was the closest thing America had to an official “court” photographer. He owned galleries in New York and Washington, had won recognition in international exhibitions, and was sought out by the rich and powerful in both America and Europe. Anyone who was anyone in the 1850s wanted to sit for a photograph in one of Brady’s studios. One year after Gardner’s arrival in America, Brady asked him to manage his studio in Washington, D.C. The fact that Brady had paid for his passage to New York, and had appointed him to such a position of responsibility so quickly, makes it likely that Brady had discovered him during one of his European trips and had been impressed by the Scotsman’s intensity and self-taught knowledge.
Intense and visionary: Alexander Gardner in 1860
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Brady was able to tap his government connections in Washington to get permission to accompany the Union armies in the field. Bored with the drudgery of static portrait photography, he was excited by the idea of using the new art form to record the events of history as they actually happened. Brady got what he asked for, but there was one unwelcome catch: he would have to finance his pet project himself. No government appropriation yet existed for such an untested enterprise. He was on his own.
War photography was not invented in the American Civil War. Battlefields of the Crimean War (1853-1856) had been photographed, but these were primitive and lifeless products, reflecting the experimental state of the art at the time. But improvements came quickly once Brady and Gardner applied themselves to solving the many technical difficulties presented by taking and developing photographs in the field. They invented a truly mobile photographic laboratory and darkroom, a horse-drawn wagon within which was contained all of the apparatus, chemicals, and equipment of the photographer’s art. One wonders what the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac must have made of this strange new contraption which needed to be kept scrupulously light-proof at all times.
Gardner’s images were exposed using the “wet-plate” method. Under yellow light, he or an assistant would coat a piece of clean glass with a mixture of chemicals called collodion (guncotton dissolved in alcohol and sulfuric ether, to which was added bromide and potassium iodide). The plate would be dried to exactly the right point, and then immersed in silver nitrate. It would then be quickly inserted into a sealed container and rushed to the camera outside the wagon, which had already been positioned on a tripod for the desired shot.
Any speck of dust, any particle of dirt, or any slight change in humidity could ruin a plate and void all the labor expended. It was a delicate, unforgiving process, requiring a deft hand and a sustained concentration. Exposure times were normally about ten seconds. The plate then had to be rushed back into the wagon immediately for developing. If the entire process took longer than ten or twenty minutes, the image could be ruined. As Brady and Gardner were spending their own money, they learned to work efficiently.
Bootless dead at Gettysburg
Gardner photographed many of the Eastern battlefields of the war, but parted with Matthew Brady in 1863. Setting up his own gallery in Washington, D.C., he recorded the dramatic events in the immediate aftermath of the war: Lincoln’s funeral, the trials of the Lincoln conspirators, and the trial of the infamous Henry Wirz, the commandant of Andersonville Prison, who was executed in 1865 for his brutal treatment of Union prisoners. Gardner left Washington in 1867 to head for the western frontier, and took many memorable photographs there for the Union Pacific Railroad before his untimely death in 1882.
Confederate sharpshooter at Gettysburg
Gardner’s unique contribution to the history of war photography appeared in 1866 with the publication of his two-volume Photographic Sketch Book of the War. No one had ever seen anything like it before. Each volume contained fifty full-page war photographs that had been taken by Gardner or his assistants; on facing pages were descriptions of the pictures’ context and relevance. Properly speaking, these were not “combat photographs” in the sense of having been taken during the actual fighting; they were post-combat pictures intended to show the devastation that resulted from modern war.
In Gardner’s day, there did not yet exist reliable techniques of mass producing photographic negatives for book publishing. What printers usually did was to hire an illustrator to make a lithograph, drawing, or engraving from an original photo, and then set this copy into a newspaper, magazine, or book. Gardner, ever the photographic purist, felt that this technique would diminish the visual impact of his war photos. So he made a remarkably bold decision: he would make his Sketch Book a collection of actual photographic positives, each individual photograph pasted carefully into its proper page.
Gardner’s masterpiece, which appeared in 1866
The idea was audacious, expensive, and a commercial failure. Because of the unique way the Sketch Book was prepared, the two volume set sold for a price of $150, which was a huge sum for a book in the 1860s. Sales were poor. The prohibitive price, and a general feeling of war fatigue in the public, meant that Gardner’s revolutionary book received little attention. It is estimated that only two hundred sets were printed, and for this reason it is today extremely rare. Doubtless it would today command a huge sum at auction. Inexpensive reprints began to appear in the 1950s, and these brought Gardner’s groundbreaking work to greater appreciation after decades of undeserved obscurity.
Grim harvest: burial of the dead at Cold Harbor
What are we to make of these photographs? In Gardner’s blasted buildings, shattered bridges, and open-mouthed corpses twisted in the agonies of death, we are immediately made aware of war’s reality. There is something disturbing in seeing a bullet-ridden farmhouse set against a scene of forests and pastures, and Gardner had a talent for such juxtapositions. Siege works, mortars, and field guns are lovingly studied by his camera, only to be followed by stark images of the effects of these weapons of war. Gardner may not have invented war photography, but under his hand the art form reached a depth and maturity that has rarely, if ever, been equaled.
Among many haunting passages, the following particularly resonate. Opposite a picture of skeletons excavated at the battlefield of Cold Harbor, he writes:
Among the unburied on the Bull Run field, a singular discovery was made, which might have led to the identification of the remains of a soldier. An orderly turning over a skull upon the ground, heard something within it rattle, and reaching for the supposed bullet, found a glass eye.
Opposite a photo of bloated and bootless Gettysburg dead, Gardner writes:
Some lay stretched on their backs, as if friendly hands had prepared them for burial. Some were still resting on one knee, their hands grasping their muskets. In some instances the cartridge remained between the teeth, or the musket was held in one hand, and the other was uplifted as though to ward a blow, or appealing to heaven. The faces of all were pale, as though cut in marble, and as the wind swept across the battle-field it waved the hair, and gave the bodies such an appearance of life that a spectator could hardly help thinking they were about to rise to continue the fight.
Twentieth century combat photography has perhaps dulled our appreciation of Gardner’s meditative and somber style. We now expect to be in the thick of the action as it happens. While this “real-time” technique has its undeniable merits, there is something to be said for a photograph taken immediately after a military engagement. Carnage is best expressed with a measure of reflection. Unlike real-time combat photography, Gardner’s photos are artistic compositions, planned out in minute detail.
There is a quiet, haunting power in these photos, in these panoramas of ruin, these abandoned earthworks, and in these bearded men with melancholy faces leaning up against blasted buildings. They impart a stillness, an awe in the soul, that is not easily forgotten. Gardner’s work was so far ahead of its time that his contemporaries lost sight of him. He stands as America’s prophet of total war, a harbinger of the earth-shaking violence that would convulse the world in the century to come.
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