“Untitled” from the Passage on the Underground Railroad Series by Stephen Marc (2007, digital montage).
Although artists had sketched battlefield images for centuries as journalistic renderings, it was not until the American Civil War that photography came into its own as the most vivid and immediate means of chronicling a large-scale human drama.
"The Civil War was the first extensively photographed event in world history, with photographers actually going onto the battlefields and into the camps," says Richard Hatcher, the historian at Fort Sumter National Monument. "Photography had become relatively cheap to do by this time, and thousands upon thousands of images were taken during the war. The Library of Congress alone has some 9,000 photographs in its collection."
The reality of the carnage, shorn of all romantic illusion, was brought home to newspaper readers for the first time. But the photographer's eye was not confined solely to the battleground.
The homefront, during and after the conflict, was likewise depicted.
Two local exhibitions of Civil War-era photography, one a contemporary interpretation, will be augmented by dual exhibits of paintings reflecting the period beginning April 8 at the Gibbes Museum of Art and the City Gallery. The exhibits are being held in observance of the sesquicentennial.
Running through May 8 at the City Callery, "Post Civil War Charleston -- 1865: A Photographic Retrospective" showcases large-format images from the archives of the Library of Congress that were taken in Charleston in 1865, revealing a war-ravaged city in the immediate aftermath of the War Between the States. Many of Charleston's most familiar landmarks are documented, among them The Battery, City Hall and Fort Sumter.
Some of these images were taken from large glass plates, others with twin lens stereoscopic cameras. In recent years, the photographs have been painstakingly restored by Charleston native Rick Rhodes of Rick Rhodes Photography & Imaging.
"All of them had some degree of damage," says Rhodes. "Some were just faded. When I came across the images several years ago, I saw their quality. I knew that when I had the correct machines to print them and the knowledge to restore them that I would want to do this project. We're at that point now. We were able to enhance and bring out as much detail as possible, and the quality of the scans allowed us to enlarge the images."
Also to be presented at the City Gallery through May 8 will be "Civil/Uncivil: The Art of Leo Twiggs," composed of artistic interpretations of the impact that the war had on American society in the late 19th and 20th centuries. It features works by Orangeburg native Dr. Leo Twiggs, who documents the continuum from the Civil War to the civil rights movement.
Twiggs addresses broader themes as well, including race, black culture, politics and relationships between generations.
" 'Civil/Uncivil' provides a different perspective on the impact on Southern society of slavery, the war and race issues," says Wim Roefs of If Art Gallery in Columbia, curator of the Twiggs exhibit. "Right now, with all these other Civil War observances going on, it offers a counterpoint. Twiggs does this in a subtle, intelligent and sophisticated manner. He takes away the monopoly on talking about Southern heritage from those who always tend to look at it as a white affair, treating the experience of African-Americans as an afterthought."
The public may attend a gallery reception in honor of Rhodes and Twiggs 6-8 p.m. April 8. Rhodes, accompanied by Charleston historian Robert Rosen, will discuss the subject of post-Civil War Charleston at 2 p.m. April 9, while Twiggs will be on hand to discuss his exhibit and the issues it raises at 2 p.m. April 10.
Running through July 10 at the Gibbes' Main Gallery will be "Stephen Marc: Passage on the Underground Railroad," a collection of the photographer's images and digital montages exploring the history of freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Organized by the University at Buffalo Art Gallery, the exhibit combines modern images with historic documents and artifacts to "create richly layered objects that bring the past palpably into the present."
"Marc is a trained photographer who takes documentary photos and weaves together a story from them," says Pam Wall, curator of collections at the Gibbes. "Each work uses as few as four and as many as 20 photographs for his final montages. In addition, he incorporates documents and objects and other ephemera that he finds in his research."
The most distinctive aspect of the work, says Wall, is Marc's ability to twine past and present to challenge how we think about history.
Also at the Gibbes through July 10 and on view in the Rotunda Gallery for the first time will be "A Soldier's View of Civil War Charleston," featuring 32 paintings by Conrad Wise Chapman (1842-1910).
The American-born artist always considered himself a Southerner despite having lived his formative years in Rome.
In 1861, he left Italy to enlist in the Confederate Army and, while serving under Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, created a remarkable array of paintings of the forts and batteries in and around Charleston Harbor. His works for this exhibition are on loan from the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.
Curiously, Chapman's paintings of Charleston scenes remained in Rome for close to 30 years after they were completed.
"We're really excited that this is the first time the entire group of paintings will be shown in Charleston," Wall says. "We also have one large-scale painting of his in our collection, depicting the bombardment of Fort Moultrie.
"Pairing these two exhibits reflects our desire to offer a broader picture of the Civil War: historical paintings alongside the work of a contemporary artist."
If you go
What: 'Stephen Marc: Passage on the Underground Railroad' and 'A Soldier's View of Civil War Charleston.'Where: The Gibbes Museum of Art, 135 Meeting St.When: April 8-July 10.Admission: $9. Call 722-2706 or visit gibbesmuseum.org.