In the 1850s, as the new medium of photography found its footing in the commercial marketplace, the way people perceived their world and one another changed dramatically.
And when P.G.T. Beauregard’s forces fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, signaling the start of America’s most devastating war, photographers were ready to capitalize on the occasion.
To be sure, their work served to document the Civil War, but that was hardly its only, or main, purpose. The impact these images had on perceptions of the war and the behavior of soldiers and civilians alike was enormous.
A remarkable new exhibition, “Photography and the American Civil War,” which arrives at the Gibbes Museum Sept. 27, seeks to explore “the role of the camera at a watershed moment in American culture.”
Organized by Jeff L. Rosenheim, curator in charge in the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the show has garnered extensive attention and praise during its residency in New York City. It will occupy both second-floor exhibit galleries at the Gibbes until Jan. 5, then head to the New Orleans Museum of Art for its last viewing.
“I’m very excited for it to be seen in another environment, one that has its own wonderful, complex history,” Rosenheim said in a telephone interview. “I think these pictures will come to life in Charleston.”
It will provide a rare opportunity to consider how art influenced the war, and how the war influenced art.
Rosenheim conceived of the show more than 10 years ago, and spent the past five years intensely preparing it, he said.
“Photography and the American Civil War” consists of many objects: framed photos, large-format books, jewelry and mementos and other portable items that contained a tintype image.
The pictures include battlefield and field hospital scenes, landscapes and numerous portraits.
Many of the photographers working at the time set up portable studios in order to capitalize on the war, offering to produce portraits of soldiers soon to become embroiled in the violence, said Gibbes Curator of Exhibitions Pam Wall.
Getting these men to pay for a portrait often was not difficult: You better do this, they were told, in case you don’t come home.
The photography establishes a common language with which the war could be understood, despite political and geographic differences, Rosenheim said.
“What you see in the faces of these kids, very young, what you see in the faces of these soldiers, whether they’re from Virginia or Maine, is the belief that if they sit for their portrait, they will survive the war.”
Rosenheim said he was surprised by how thoroughly the camera integrated itself into the lives of many in the north and south, “not just officers but also enlisted men, often having pictures made for the first time.”
The photographs were worn on lapels, placed in broaches, carried in pockets, arranged in albums. In this way their subjects gained a certain immortality.
“If they survived that first battle, they sat for another picture,” Rosenheim said.
The pictures are visually simple, without much variation of pose or perspective, he said.
“What’s not simple about them is how effectively they communicate. They’re not heroic, they’re anti-heroic.” And they offer “unvarnished insight into the human condition.”
That condition included all the profound courage, all the terror, all the ambivalence and devastating sorrow that accompanies unspeakable violence, he said.
“We believe something like a million pictures were made in those four years,” taken by 2,000 identified photographers, he said. “That’s a lot. It touched everybody.”
Gibbes director Angela Mack emphasized the thrust of the presentation: “(Rosenheim) didn’t want it to be a historic show about the Civil War,” she said. “It’s a photography show. It shines a light on the medium and how it affected the war ... and public perception of a crisis.”
Wall noted that these are not the sort of war photographs the public has become accustomed to. There are no action shots because the equipment was cumbersome and the exposure process long.
“So (photographers) came after a battle but before the bodies were moved,” she said.
It is possible that some scenes were deliberately staged or otherwise manipulated for effect. Photojournalistic ethics had not yet been developed.
And some photographers were hired to create partisan images designed to make the war look better or worse, depending on who the commissioner was, Wall said.
For example, George Barnard followed Sherman’s March to the Sea and created a large album of images he called “Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign,” produced with the general’s support.
He began in Nashville and documented war-time destruction in Atlanta, Savannah, Columbia and Charleston.
“They saw value in preserving their accomplishments,” Mack said. “It is clear that these guys understood the significance of the event. They understood that we were fighting for what we were going to become. So there was a lot of documentation.”
Rosenheim said the camera was often used as a tool for political activism or strategic planning, not only as a documentary device.
The 1863 photograph of a Louisiana slave whose back was covered with the scars of multiple whippings was produced for the explicit purpose of lending weight to the abolitionist movement up north, he said.
“This is the first of America’s wars that’s visually publicized,” said Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston. “This is very important because it added immediacy to conflict that Americans had never experienced before. (The images) gave us a better sense of the horrors of the conflict and the thoroughgoing destructiveness. And this raised the stakes, I think. It says to some, ‘We’ve got to commit ourselves’ — political leaders, soldiers — ‘to this conflict because we are so invested. Look at what we have lost. We’ve got to see it through.’”
At the same time, these startling images fueled the peace movement in the north, Powers said. Some northern Democrats who sympathized with the South, the Copperheads, argued that the carnage was insupportable.
And after the issuance of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, others reacted to the images by asking whether fighting a war to free black people was worth it, Powers added. Why not negotiate a settlement?
The inhumanity of the carnage was underscored by photography, Powers said.
“Those who’ve studied this have told us about soldiers, who had their wits about them in the final moment, found in death clutching the photograph. The photograph takes the place of what would have been a more normal mourning situation and deathbed situation.”
Too often, death came in extraordinary ways and made extraordinary claims on the living.
The grieving process was elongated, the emotional scars larger, the sense of dislocation profound.
“That can help us understand where we are today, in 2013, when we think of the homage that’s continued to be paid to the Confederacy,” Powers said. “We cannot disengage ourselves today, in 2013, from the way that death occurred during that four-year period.”
Nothing like it would happen again for a hundred years. In the 1960s as the Vietnam War began to rage with its unique fury, photography once again would insert itself into the making of history, he said.
The images seen on television every night “brought a certain kind of immediacy to the conflict that we hadn’t seen before.” And that immediacy, those images of cataclysmic violence, changed public opinion.
Photography already was becoming an important new visual medium, but its speedy and significant entrance into mainstream American culture happened thanks to the war, Rosenheim said. “It really needed a great subject.”
Technological advancement made it all possible. The collodion “wet plate” process, which required portable darkrooms, gave way to the extensive use of dry plates, typically glass (ambrotype) or a sheet of metal (tintype) on which a dry light-sensitive emulsion was applied.
These new plates could be pre-coated and processed quickly, and tintypes were much cheaper than anything that had come before them.
The exhibit not only provides an opportunity to contemplate history, the significance of the Civil War and the meaning of art, it also raises important questions about our current era, Rosenheim said.
“What is the role of the camera in society today? What do we ask of our photographers today? What do we ask ourselves as consumers of images today?”
In the age of the JPEG and MPEG, of social media, file sharing and remote digital storage, answering these questions could shed some light on who we are and how we choose to live.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902.