Wednesday, May 1, 2013


War photographs are not really my thing. Nor would it be likely that anyone accuse me of being a Civil War buff – far from it. Of course, I appreciate the technical skill and bravery that war photographers need to have at their disposal in order to go into battle-torn regions and document the gruesome brutality and worst of human nature – combining skill and an aesthetic eye; a rare talent. The courageous men and women who bring their cameras into this field should be applauded. Still, it’s not my thing.  

History is fascinating and essential. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said George Santayana, and I couldn’t agree more. Nevertheless, when it comes to war, I am usually disgusted and saddened by the basest and most brutal instincts of man to harm his brother in the name of religion, land, or politics. It’s just not something I choose to focus on. Layered on top of my already decided discomfort and distaste for military battle are all of the complex issues related to the American Civil War: slavery, racial prejudice, Southern intolerance, etc. Confederate flags are still a high-flying symbol of white supremacy, bigotry, intolerance, and any number of other unsavory things. As a progressive and liberal Yankee, these associations leave a bitter taste in my mouth. So it was with trepidation that I walked into the Photography and the American Civil War exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
I’m grateful that I did. The collection on display was unquestionably comprehensive in its scope: more than 200 photographs; battlefields and war-ruined villages, documentation of slaves as property, wallet-sized portraits of soldiers and families; intricately framed daguerreotypes, portraits in lockets, political campaign buttons, doctors’ photographs documenting wounds and amputations, a series of photographs by Alexander Gardner depicting the hanging of the five conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln – the combination of all these materials opened my eyes as well as my mind. 
As if to ensure my interest in what was to come, in the first room was a portrait of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth; dignified and regal with deep, soulful eyes that made me wonder what lifetime of atrocities they’d witnessed. Directly next to that small, yet queenly portrait was a photograph of Runaway Mississippi Slave, Gordon; his back a keloid constellation of brutality and pain; a map of human suffering and cruelty. Immediately I understood the importance of what I was seeing and was reminded of the integral relationship between photographs and how we respond to social issues.  In the high corner of the room was a calligraphy-printed quote “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” – Abraham Lincoln, 1858.

The crowds were thick in the galleries the afternoon I went, and many of the items on display; small and demanding of close inspection, but I patiently stayed my place in the slow procession to take in as many of the images and objects as I could.
Of course, I was expecting to see the Matthew Brady portraits of Lincoln, I’d seen them reproduced countless times in books, magazines, and newspapers, but I wasn’t prepared for the austere power these portraits have in context.  Nor was I prepared for the documentation of how our President had aged during his time in office. No longer just a thing of educational TV series or beer-bellied redneck reenactments, I was developing a personal relationship to the Civil War and could actually feel areas of my mind expanding to make room for this new information and its supplemental emotions.

Rooms of bleak landscapes; Virginia, South Carolina; photos of burned town center buildings that looked like they could have been ripped from the soundstages of Gone with the Wind. Many of these photos credited to Matthew Brady, but interestingly, and it is still being discovered; scores of young men, fascinated by the then new science of photography, were taking to the field and capturing images, which were attributed to Brady who was comfortably in his studio in the nation’s capitol.             

Walls of photographs lined one room documenting medical procedures: amputations, bullet removals, wounds, etc. Each photo I looked at created a personal connection for me with the subject – did these young men and boys actually know what a camera was? Were they able to see the finished results of the picture taking? Many of them were probably illiterate and terribly scared. Did they know their faces were being captured forever? They certainly couldn’t have known that crowds of art enthusiasts, historians, and tourists would be lining up to analyze their likenesses a hundred and fifty years after they’d suffered such humiliations. My mind reeled through the century and a half that separated us.

There were cases lined with photos from the end of the war of white women and children labeled: Freed Slaves of Louisiana. They had been slaves because of the “one drop rule,” even though they'd looked no more African-American than Gwyneth Paltrow.The one drop rule was something I'd heard of, but the visual evidence supporting its enforcement was staggering.
In the final room was the series documenting the hanging of Lincoln’s murder conspirators – a 19th century most wanted follow-up, complete with accompanying newspaper headlines. There was also a Matthew Brady portrait of Robert E. Lee taken two days after Lincoln’s assassination. The wall text explained that after surrendering at Appomattox, Lee returned to his home in Richmond, Virginia. Large areas of his affluent neighborhood had fallen and been burned, but his home was surprisingly still standing. In the photograph, Lee is standing on the back porch of his home; his hat in his hand. He looks old, tired, and solemn; the weight of defeat a heavy shadow on him.
The indelible collection of faces is what impacted me most: Young. Old. White. Black. Innocent. Stupid. Angry. Frightened. Defiant. Thoughtful. Anxious. Brave. Naïve.  – A world of people that are gone, whose experiences can only be guessed at by the clues that are left.  Case after case of daguerreotype portraits – suggestions of young men with glass shadows; phantoms, some looking no more than children; cleaned-up and uniformed; bayonets proudly grasped in adolescent hands, some of them with rosy painted cheeks or an added twinkle in their eye; many of them displayed in precious and intricately decorated cases; silver lined with deep-colored velvet. These were sons and brothers; boyfriends and husbands; real people with real families and real lives; they’ve evaporated into the historiography of our country’s policies and ideologies. All this evidence of loss made me reflective and sad. 

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