Critical Issues in American Art: A Book of Readings

By Mary Ann Calo | Go to book overview

9
Albums of War

On Reading Civil War Photographs

ALAN TRACHTENBERG

Drawing on contemporary theories of representation and signification, Alan Trachtenberg considers the crucial role of photography in constructing historical narratives. Trachtenberg focuses on the Civil War as the first American crisis to fully avail itself of "historicism-by-photography," the creation of a palpable sense of reality in recollections of the past through photographic evidence. In particular, photographic albums that simulated historical archives, designed for the intimate conditions of home viewing, are examined for the extent to which they provide, through the judicious combination of image and text, a structured discourse about the events and meaning of the war.

Challenging the commonplace belief in the incontrovertible reality, and thus reliability, of the photograph, Trachtenberg argues that both the meaning and the documentary value of the photograph can be called into question. The Civil War photographic album emerges as a purposeful narrative construction of which the most compelling truth is affirmation of the camera's presence as a witness to the past and thus of its privileged status as authorized purveyor of historical knowledge.

The mere notation of photography, when we introduce it into our meditation on the genesis of historical knowledge and its true value, suggests this simple question: COULD SUCH AND SUCH A FACT, AS IT IS NARRATED, HAVE BEEN PHOTOGRAPHED?

-- Paul Valéry

On August 17, 1861, not quite a month after the first serious blood-letting of the Civil War, at Bull Run, the New York Times reported that "Mr. Brady, the Photographer, has just returned from Washington with the magnificent series of views of scenes, groups, and incidents of the war which he has been making for the last two months": views, the report adds, that "will do more than the most elaborate descriptions to perpetuate the scenes of that brief campaign." Few signs of actual bloodshed show in the Bull Run series; on the whole Civil War photographs depict preparations and aftermaths rather than battle itself. 1 Nevertheless the point holds: the photographs perpetuate a collective image of the war as a sensible event, what it must have looked

-135-

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