Photography and the American Civil War @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 259 black and white photographs, generally framed in brown wood and matted or displayed in glass cases, and hung against grey walls with loose sack cloth edging in a series of ten rooms on the first floor of the museum (in the Greek & Roman wing). The exhibit was curated by Jeff Rosenheim, and a catalog of the exhibit was has been published by the museum (here) and distributed by Yale University Press (here). Since photography was not allowed in the galleries, there are no installation shots for this show.

The following photographers have been included in the exhibit, with the information on the number of prints on view and other background details organized by room. Other related ephemera is typically displayed in cases:

The Crucible of American History (Room 1)

  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • Reed Brockway Bontecou: 1 albumen print, 1865
  • Mathew Brady: 1 albumen carte de visite, 1858-1860
  • George Cook: 1 ambrotype with applied color, 1861-1865
  • Alexander Gardner: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • William Marsh: 1 salted paper print, 1860
  • McPherson & Oliver: 1 albumen carte de visite, 1863-1865
  • Timothy O’Sullivan: 2 albumen silver prints, 1863-1864
  • Thomas Roche, 2 albumen stereograph, 1861-1865
  • Andrew Joseph Russell: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Unknown: 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861-1865, 3 ambrotypes with applied color, 1861-1865, 2 tintype with applied color, 1861-1865

Cases/Ephemera

  • 1 campaign pin
  • 31 lockets with tintype prints
  • 1 necklace with tintype prints
  • 1 gameboard
  • 1 wooden stereo viewer

The Election of Abraham Lincoln: The Start of the War/Photographica (Room 2)

  • Mathew Brady: 2 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1860
  • Alexander Gardner: 2 albumen silver print, 1864-1865
  • Alma Pelot: 2 albumen prints, 1861
  • Alma Pelot/Jesse Bolles: 4 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861
  • Thomas Roche: 1 collodion glass negative, 1865, 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Unknown: 1 ambroytpe, 1861-1865

Cases/Ephemera

  • 1 front page of Harper’s Weekly, 1860
  • 5 campaign medals with tintype prints 1860-1864
  • 1 posing stand
  • 1 Mathew Brady studio camera with tripod, 1860s
  • 4 posters, ink on paper, 1861-1863
  • 1 album, Mathew Brady, Incidents of the War, 1862
  • 1 book plate, George Barnard, 1862
  • 1 envelope/ink, 1861-1865

War Portraits/The African American Experience (Room 3)

  • George Armstead: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863
  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • Bonsall & Gibson: 1 ambrotype print, 1863
  • Mathew Brady: 2 albumen silver prints, 1861-1862, 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861-1862
  • Herrick & Dirr: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1862
  • Alexander Gardner: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Horse & Peaslee, Gallery of the Cumberland: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864
  • Charles Henry Lanneau: 2 ambrotypes with applied color, 1863
  • McPherson & Oliver: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863
  • Henry Moore: 2 albumen silver print, 1862
  • NA & RA Moore Studio: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1862-1865
  • Joseph Carr Moulton: 1 ambrotype, 1861-1865
  • AJ Riddle: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864
  • Tappin’s Photograph Art gallery, 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1861-1865
  • Unknown: 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1861-1863, 19 ambrotypes with applied color, 1861-1865, 11 tintypes with applied color, 1861-1865
  • George W. Wertz: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863-1865
  • Oliver Willard: 5 albumen silver prints with applied color, 1866

Cases/Ephemera

  • 3 leather albums with albumen silver cartes de visite
  • 1 drum

Alexander Garnder and his “Photographic Sketch Book”/ “Mementos of the Fearful Struggle” (Room 4)

  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • George Barnard/John Gibson: 1 albumen silver print, 1862
  • Alexander Gardner: 4 albumen silver prints, 1863-1865
  • David Knox: 2 albumen silver prints, 1864
  • John Reekie: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Timothy O’Sullivan: 6 albumen silver prints, 1863-1865
  • Andrew Joseph Russell: 7 albumen silver prints, 1863-1865
  • John Wood/John Gibson: 2 albumen silver prints, 1862

Stereographs/Zouave Portraits (Room 5)

  • Mathew Brady: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1862
  • Porter Photographic Papers: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864-1866
  • Benjamin Reimer: 1 albumen silver print with applied color, 1861-1865
  • George Stacy: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1861
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1861, 1 albumen silver print with applied color, 1861-1865, 3 ambrotypes with applied color

Cases/Ephemera

  • 4 albums
  • 1 poster
  • 1 wooden stereoviewer with 36 images from various photographers

Antietam, September 17, 1862/Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863 (Room 6)

  • Mathew Brady: 1 albumen silver print, 1863, 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1863
  • Alexander Gardner: 7 albumen silver prints, 1862-1863
  • Richard Lewis, 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863-1865
  • Tyson brothers: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Unknown: 1 tintype with applied color, 1862
  • Wenderoth, Taylor & Brown: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863

Late War Portraits and Views (Room 7)

  • Charles Burgess: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1865
  • Gayford & Speidel: 3 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865
  • J Gurney & Son: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864
  • Hall & Company’s Photography Gallery: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1865
  • JW Jones: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Kellogg Brothers: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1865
  • Myron Kimball: 1 albumen silver print, 1863
  • Samuel Masury: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1864-1866
  • McPherson & Oliver: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863
  • Timothy O’Sullivan: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Charles Paxon, 4 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1863
  • AJ Riddle: 1 albumen silver print, 1864
  • Unknown: 2 albumen silver carte de visite, 1861-1869
  • Charles Wheeler: 1 albumen silver carte de visite, 1863

George N. Barnard and his “Views of Sherman’s Campaign”/War Clouds (Room 8)

  • George Barnard: 13 albumen silver prints, 1864-1866, 1 album

Photography and Medicine/Reed Brockway Bontecou, MD (Room 9)

  • William Bell: 1 albumen silver print, 1866-1867
  • Reed Brockway Bontecou: 49 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865, 7 albumen silver prints, 1865, 1 albumen silver print with applied color, 1865
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print, 1863-1865

War’s End and Lincoln’s Assassination (Room 10)

  • George Barnard: 1 albumen silver print, 1866
  • Isaac Bonsall: 1 albumen silver print, 1864-1865
  • Mathew Brady: 11 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865, 2 albumen silver prints, 1865-1866
  • Alexander Gardner: 7 albumen silver prints, 1865, 2 albumen silver cartes de visite, 1865/1 album
  • John Reekie: 1 albumen silver print, 1865
  • Thomas Roche: 1 albumen silver stereograph, 1865
  • Unknown: 1 albumen silver print, 1865

Cases/Ephemera

  • 1 poster
  • 1 mourning corsage

Comments/Context: When the Met’s photography department plays to its strengths, leveraging its deep collection of 19th and early 20th century photography and matching that rare imagery with in-depth scholarship and research, it can produce shows of such power and authority that they permanently alter the way we think about the history of the medium. This comprehensive show of Civil War photography is one of these special landmark exhibits, an extensive exploration of the point where a traumatic period in our nation’s history met the emergence of a new visual medium. The show expertly mixes the known and the unknown: the generals and the anonymous soldiers, the famous battlefields and the forgotten camp sites, the big name photographers and the small town portrait studios, providing a rich, thoughtful investigation of how the war was captured in pictures. It’s a parade of the somber and the grim, the grisly and the hopeful, photographs can be equally well read as classic documents of war and the market-ready innovations of artistic minded entrepreneurs.

While the show is roughly laid out chronological in order, it more closely follows the path of photography’s approach to the conflict than the strict historical timeline of events. Capturing the action on the ground required multiple photographers and complex logistics, and so we see the beginnings of the modern photographic agency, where key figures like Mathew Brady invested in large operations and studios to cover the breadth of the war. Given the dizzying variety of technical approaches being perfected at the time and the differing demands of customers, these studios produced everything from elegant albums to low cost cartes de visite and stereographic prints, each targeted at a specific audience hungry for images of the war.

In the early 1860s, photography was still very much in its infancy and crisply stopping action (like soldiers in battle) was beyond the ability of the available technology, so photographers were forced to linger around the action, taking before and after shots that could be set up with more care and patience. The result is a portrait of war that is often silent and subdued rather than noisy and chaotic, where battlefields like Antietam and Gettysburg are strewn with corpses and landscapes are defined by masses of military equipment or fortifications reduced to rubble: skulls mix with cannon balls, bodies are stripped of their boots, and troop carts and prisoners trudge onward.

The show uses Alexander Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book and George Barnard’s Views of Sherman’s Campaign as two linchpin bodies of work, and fills in around these two cornerstones with other supporting imagery. Starting with the destruction of Fort Sumter and ending with the razing of Charleston, Savannah and other cities in the South, it’s a wearying slog of trench spikes and ordinance, bodies in ditches, tent camp rest, and landscapes stripped bare, the only elegance to be found in the consistent craftsmanship of the compositions.

The show balances these sweeping views of the war with the up-close intimacy of studio portraits of both officers and enlisted men. This was photography for the masses, cheap tintype and ambrotype portraits, framed in elaborately decorated hand held cases and made for loved ones. In the early part of the war, men stand in fresh uniforms with a mixture of pride and trepidation, brandishing rifles and pistols or long knives and sharp bayonets, and brothers stand together, with beards and backpacks, ready to face whatever they might encounter. The faces peer out with a kind of doomed deer-in-the-headlights poignancy, given that so we know so few came back. Those that did are seen in a second group of portraits later in the exhibit, where lost legs and amputated arms are now part of the picture. An entire room of medical imagery by Reed Brockway Bontecou takes this idea further, following the path of gunshots through bodies, investigating ugly wounds and weeping scars, lingering over lost fingers and eyes. The exhibit ends not with fanfare and trumpets, but with the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators and a heavy feeling of collective loss.

While there is, of course, a straightforward and often gripping visual history lesson here, the exhibit isn’t a dry textbook of the Civil War. Instead, it’s a visceral, gut punching tale of North and South, battlefields and sacrifices, destruction and desolation. It’s also the tale of a trial by fire for the medium of photography, the story of Brady and Barnard, Gardner and O’Sullivan, and countless others, the eyes behind the cameras and how they framed the conflict for the rest of us to see. Taken together, the exhibit educates along multiple lines, seeing the history of the nation through its picture makers, smartly weaving art and war into one inextricably intertwined mass. This is the kind of exhibit the Met does better than almost any other museum, proof once again that when it investigates its extensive core holdings with deliberation and academic rigor, it’s nearly unbeatable.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are obviously no posted prices for the works on display. Prints and albums by George Barnard, Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan all come into the secondary markets from time to time. Barnard’s individual prints have ranged in price from roughly $1000 to $3000, while the Sherman portfolio has reached more than $100000. Brady’s prices have ranged between $1000 on the low end to more than $300000 for his most iconic daguerreotype portraits. Gardner’s prints have ranged between $1000 and $29000, with his Sketchbook album reaching $85000. And O’Sullivan’s prints have ranged between $1000 and $135000, although many of his highest priced works do not depict this particular Civil War imagery.

Alexander Gardner, George Barnard, Mathew Brady, Reed Brockway Bontecou, Timothy O'Sullivan, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press

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JTF (just the facts): Published in March 2019 by Paradigm Publishing (here). Softcover, 144 pages, with 64 color photographs. Includes texts by Ryan McGinley and Thomas Beachdel. In an edition of 350 ... Read on.

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