Photojournalism's Birth under Fire

By Zeaman, John | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), April 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

Photojournalism's Birth under Fire


Zeaman, John, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Photography was only about 20 years old in 1861. By that time, the daguerreotype, tintype and even the 3-D stereopticon had found a place in American popular culture. People who could never have afforded a painted likeness could now walk into a storefront studio and come out with an excellent photographic one. It was a wonderful, entertaining and democratic art form.

Then the Civil War broke out.

In this tragic conflict, the deadliest in American history, photography found a monumental subject. Photography's grim realism changed people's perception of war. In the process, it transformed itself as well, from a form of entertainment into a serious medium. Photojournalism was born.

Now, in an exhibit timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Metropolitan Museum has drawn on its own extensive holdings of Civil War images to mount "Photography and the American Civil War." The show opens a window into history while also showing how the war changed photography itself. The gallery walls are draped with white linen to evoke the tenting of the war's encampments.

Large photo corps

If there's one photographer people associate with the Civil War, it's Mathew Brady. It was Brady who made the famous portraits of Lincoln, in which, year by year, the president's increasingly worn and grooved face seemed to map the war's terrible toll. Brady is also known for his graphic pictures of the battlefield dead, grotesquely swollen corpses with blackened faces and gaping mouths that so shocked viewers at the time.

However, the focus on Brady as the great Civil War photographer can make it seem as if he was practically alone out there, which was far from true. Brady, in fact, was more of an administrator than the man behind the camera. He orchestrated a corps of some 300 assistants, who were themselves only about a third of the total number there. All told, a thousand or so war photographers took hundreds of thousands of images.

The cameras were cumbersome, but the greater limitation was their slow speed. An exposure took up to 15 seconds. Attempts to photograph battles in progress resulted in nothing but ghostly blurs. So there is a bias toward portraits and aftermath scenes in Civil War photography. …

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