Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Civil War Photography

Journalism 280

By: Leah Adler


It is said that the marriage of photography and journalism ties back to the Civil War. While the United States were torn in two, the North and South battling furiously for their own interests, the photographers of the time were there to capture the essence of the moments. The images taken not only informed the current public about the war, but have also become an invaluable source for future generations to learn from. Without photojournalism the triumphant, devastating, and just plain fascinating events and people of the Civil War would have been lost to the aged mind’s forgetfulness. Photojournalism during the Civil War dealt with technological limitations, focused the evolution of content to be newsworthy, and eventually became a tool of learning for the years to come.

In 1851, Frederick Scott Archer created the wet-plate for cameras (Seels 1993). Originally exposure times were minutes upon minutes and Archer cut it down to a moderate amount of seconds (Seels 1993). However, even with shorter exposures the technology for cameras at the time was minimal. The earliest processes were daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, or tintypes, none of which could be reproduced because none produced a negative (Wert 2006). It wasn’t until the wet-plate when a glass-plate negative was created that allowed for mass production of an image (Wert 2006). As photojournalists over the century’s have learned, mass reproduction of an image is key to today’s society.

The photos taken, even with the wet-plates, needed immediate development in a dark room. To accommodate this need the photographer would use a portable wagon, which served as the dark room, to complete the photo process (Seels 1993). Both Northern and Southern soldiers likely witnessed these wagons parked near their camps. Contextually speaking, if one looks at a

photo from the Civil War there will be no action found in the shot. At the time exposure for a camera was between 10 and 30 seconds making the cameras unable to capture movement (Seels 1993). The kind of technology to produce an action photo didn’t come till much later in history. The photos instead focused on the scenes before and after battle. Anything from images of towns, battlefields, railroads, and camps were very commonly found on the front page of the news or weekly paper (Douglas 2001). This eventually began to change. During the later part of the war photographers began to switch the content of their photos, leading to strong shift in tone for the coverage of the events during the Civil War.

Wounded soldiers, and even casualties that lay still on the blood soaked ground, became the new common subjects for the Civil War photos. Photojournalism evolved from simple landscapes and settings to showing the more dramatic and traumatizing events happening in the war (Morrow 2007). The photographers were expanding their horizons and bringing the gore and sadness to the doorsteps of news readers (Wert 2006).The task of taking such photos, while daunting to anyone’s sensibilities, was also physically challenging. Equipment at the time was bulky and complex making the set up and actual capture of the images a difficult task. It took at least two men to take one photograph (American/Website).

Civil War photographers such as Alexander Gardner, Timothy O’Sullivan, and George Baynard all took on the task. But none became as famous for their coverage of the Civil War as Mathew Brady. Brady, during this era, specialized in portrait pictures among his other Civil War photos (Seels 1993). In particular he was responsible for the common “cartes-de-visite” that soldiers would often send home to their families as keep sakes (Seels 1993). The “cartes-de-

visite” were reproduced easily and were similar to what today are known as calling cards because of their small portable size (Seels 1993).

On February 27, 1860 Abraham Lincoln had his portrait taken by Mathew Brady in New York a few hours before his speech at the Copper Union (Morrow 2007). This portrait was then circulated in Harper’s Weekly and created such promotion for the campaign that Lincoln himself claimed that Mathew Brady, in conjunction with his Copper Union speech, won him the Presidency (Morrow 2007). Photography’s influence on the election showed the potential power of photojournalism as communicative mass media tool (Morrow 2007).

While the realm of photojournalism was so new during this period it is seen as the starting point for trends in coverage of other American wars. Photographers saw the world wars and even current day issues like the war in Iraq as needing documentation in both a news and historical manner. Also, the interest in Civil War photos began to leak into other mediums as the nineteenth and twentieth century’s came about. Film makers began to look at and study the photographs to better understand the realistic look for the battles and campsites from the Civil War (Seels 1993).

With these images available to modern society, documentaries and other works were able to re-create and accurately portray what it was really like during the mid 1800’s, while the confederates and union fought a bloody war. When the war was over many photographers pursued other seemingly important events to document what would be later part of history. Many headed west to capture the excitement of the new frontier (Morrow 2007).

The Civil War started a chain of events in photojournalism by creating realism and understanding in coverage of history. These principles have been reinforced over time and apply strongly to current day photojournalism even though technology has made significant advancements since the mid 1800’s (Seels 1993). Instead of hard to manage cameras with long exposures photojournalist are now working with hardware that can capture fast moving action with telephoto lenses. No dark room wagons are pulled in tow and no assistant is needed for the common day photojournalist as he peruses his photos on the digital screen of an SLR camera.


Online Journals/ Articles:

Douglas, P. (2001) The Civil War as Photographed by Mathew Brady. The Constitution Community: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1870). Retrieved from http://ehis.ebscohost.com

Park, D. (1999). Picturing the war: visual genres in civil war news. The Communication Review, 3(4), Retrieved from http://ehis.ebscohost.com

Morrow, K.(2007). The Birth Of Photjournalism. Civil War Time,46 (7), Retrieved from http://ehis.ebscohost.com

Park, D. (1999). Picturing the war: visual genres in civil war news. The Communication Review, 3(4), Retrieved from http://ehis.ebscohost.com

Seels, J, & Seels, B. (1993). civil war photography and its impact from 1863-1993. Retrieved from http://ehis.ebscohost.com

Wert, J.(2006) Civil War Photography. Civil War Times.45 (6), Retrieved from http://ehis.ebscohost.com


American Civil War Photo gallery http://www.civilwar-pictures.com/history-of-civilwar-photography.html