The Civil War wasn’t the first war to be photographed, but the leaps and bounds that photographic technology had taken leading up to the war in 1861 enabled American photographers at the time to come out en masse when news of the attack on Fort Sumter came.
Many photos came out of the war, showing everything from the horrifically scarred back of an escaped slave, to the bravado of young confederate soldiers. In the video above, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibit Jeff L. Rosenheim walks us through some of those photos, explaining the role each one played in documenting four years of bloodshed.
All of the photos that Rosenheim talks about in the video have something significant to say about the war. “The Scourged Back” was one of the first photos of a slave showing the scars that had been whipped into his back, illustrating the horrors of slavery in an irrefutable way.
The two photos “A Sharpshooter’s Last Sleep” and “Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter,” both taken by Alexander Gardner, show how the line between truth and fiction in photography was already being blurred even as early as 1963. Both photos show the same dead sharpshooter, photographed in two different locations by Gardner — a fact he didn’t reveal to the readers of the Civil War sketchbook they appeared in.
Not all of the photos are sad, but such a tragic time in the history of the United States will inevitably yield some hard-to-stomach photography. Just like today’s combat photogs, these photographers had to be as brave as the soldiers they were photographing alongside. They slept in the same fields and dodged the same bullets, all to get physical proof of the war back to the folks back home.
Be sure to check out the video at the top to see and hear all about these historic photos. And if you happen to live in NYC, head over the Met sometime before September 2nd and spend an afternoon perusing the exhibit in person.