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Featured Publication:
Photography and the American Civil War

Nadja Hansen, Former Editorial Assistant, Editorial Department; and Hilary Becker, Administrative Assistant, Editorial Department

Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Photography and the American Civil War, by Jeff Rosenheim, features 297 color images and is available in The Met Store.

«Photography was invented just twenty years before the American Civil War. In many ways the war—its documentation, its soldiers, its battlefields—was the arena of the camera's debut in America. "The medium of photography was very young at the time the war began but it quickly emerged into the medium it is today," says Jeff Rosenheim, curator of the current exhibition Photography and the American Civil War (on view through September 2), and author of its accompanying catalogue. "I think that we are where we are in photographic history, in cultural history, because of what happened during the Civil War . . . it's the crucible of American history. The war changed the idea of what individual freedom meant; we abolished slavery, we unified our country, we did all those things, but with some really interesting new tools, one of which was photography."»

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B, Petersburg, Virginia, 1864. Albumen silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 (33.65.241)

As the catalogue discusses, photography served many purposes during the war. It was used to promote abolition; as propaganda for both the northern and southern causes; as an important tool in the creation of Lincoln's public persona and career; as well as for reconnaissance and tactical observation. The Civil War also marks the beginning of photojournalism as we understand it today. Photographers in the field who worked for name-brand studios like those of Mathew B. Brady and Alexander Gardner can be understood as the first embedded journalists. In his illuminating text, Rosenheim posits that Brady and the many others who made the photography of war their business came to understand the social responsibility that was part of their art, the responsibility the camera gave them.

Clockwise: Unknown artist. The Pattillo Brothers, Company K, "Henry Volunteers," Twenty-second Regiment, Georgia Volunteer Infantry, 1861–63. Quarter-plate ruby glass ambrotype with applied color. David Wynn Vaughn Collection; Unknown artist, Confederate Corporal (?) with British Rifle Musket and Bowie Knife, Likely from Georgia, 1861–62 (?), Sixth-plate ambrotype with applied color. David Wynn Vaughn Collection; Unknown artist, Private James House, Sixteenth Georgia Cavalry Battalion, Army of Tennessee, 1861–62 (?). Sixth-plate ruby glass ambrotype. David Wynn Vaughn Collection

"The Civil War created an incredible demand for photography. It was used by the Union and Confederate armies and of course by regular Americans who wanted photographs of their family members heading into danger, and of the battle scenes themselves," Rosenheim explains. "It's hard to imagine the pathos of people buying photographs of battlefields and slaughter and meticulously inserting the prints into photography portrait albums. But this was happening on a mass scale. I think there may have been a superstitious element to it. Families may have felt that if they could put pictures of their brothers, sons, husbands into an album—to contain their likenesses in some way—that they could stop their death." As the catalogue discusses, most stationers and portrait galleries—and there were many—were in business to accommodate soldiers' needs. People were dying so quickly, families wanted something to hold on to. This tremendous demand galvanized a rapid advancement in camera technology in the Civil War years, allowing for easier and cheaper photography. "This was a time of great democratic change," says Rosenheim. By 1863, thousands of people could afford to buy and commission photographs. "To see a photograph of yourself gave people a sense of their individuality."

Unknown artist, "Picture Gallery Photographs," 1860s. Albumen silver print (carte de visite). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2013 (2013.57)

In his planning for the exhibition, Rosenheim scoured records from photography historians and from Civil War specialists, the military, newspapers, the Library of Congress, and websites developed by individuals simply uploading family portraits. "All of this incredible information is coming together on the Web—enlistment records, photographs with rare period inscriptions on the verso, scans of newspaper engravings—and now in many cases we are able to put together who made the photographs, where and when they were made, and who or what regiment is depicted. Every day something new is added to the digital universe, be it a new name in a government database, or the discovery of a single photograph from someone's attic."

Attributed to Andrew Joseph Russell, Laborers at Quartermaster's Wharf, Alexandria, Virginia, 1863–65. Albumen silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1933 (33.65.40)

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Tag(s): catalogue


  • charles miciotto says:

    when will the photography and American civil war be in New Orleans?

    Posted: July 7, 2013, 11:14 a.m.

  • Bill Brady says:

    Please give me the date(s) and location of the Photography of the American Civil War exhibit when it is in New Orleans
    Thank you,

    Posted: July 7, 2013, 11:35 a.m.

  • Marsha Pepper says:

    I saw this today on the CBS Sunday Morning program and it was mentioned that the exhibition would go to Charleston after the Met. I cannot find information about that online, can you please tell me where it will be in Charleston?


    Posted: July 7, 2013, 3:18 p.m.

  • Eileen Willis says:

    After its presentation at the Metropolitan, the exhibition will be shown at the Gibbes Museum, Charleston, South Carolina (September 27, 2013–January 5, 2014), and the New Orleans Museum of Art (January 31–May 4, 2014).

    Posted: July 8, 2013, 3:20 p.m.

  • Marisa Goldman says:

    My great great grandfather was a photographer during the Civil War and I wanted to know if any of his work was being shown. Name is Henry Clay Fleming (from Ravenswood VA/Ravenswood WVA). I was informed that a lot of his work was recently discovered and I would love to see it.

    Posted: July 8, 2013, 4:02 p.m.

  • Charles Sachs says:

    Pity the exhibit does not mention David B. Woodbury, who worked for Brady all the war. I have been telling people for years about his letters and diary which documents his photography. Only 2 letters I allowed to be displayed in 1972-3 for the Smithsonian's 100th anniversary of Ballooning documenting David taking a successful aerial photo. This was arranged by the late National Archives Brady authority Josephine Cobb who retired in '72. And you even mention a key picture David took, of course crediting Brady, who's eyesight was terrible and assumed could no longer operate a camera (focus that is). Interested to add some goodies to your exhibition? David had an exceptional eye and a number of his pictures are owned by Bill Becker, who has a few in his photography history web site. Yes, there are always treasures to still be discovered, not lost to history, like when the Barnard family tossed all his records at the end of the war. Garbage to some . . . treasures to others.

    Posted: August 10, 2013, 6:14 p.m.

  • Charles Sachs says:

    An added comment in reviewing your web listing, David took a picture "in battle" 2 years before the Cooper's Battery shot, which, in fact he also took, not Tim O'Sullivan who it is always credited. This Miss Cobb also found most significant.

    Posted: August 10, 2013, 6:54 p.m.

  • Tracy Kennan says:

    The New Orleans Museum of Art will host the exhibition Photography and the American Civil War from January 31, 2014 - May 4, 2014.

    Posted: August 28, 2013, 12:35 p.m.

  • Molly says:

    Where will the exhibit go after New Orleans? I'd love to see it and am sorry I missed it when it was in NY. Thanks!

    Posted: May 4, 2014, 3:31 p.m.

  • Annie Dolmatch says:

    Molly, the New Orleans Museum of Art was unfortunately the exhibition's last stop. The artwork will now be returned to the lenders of the pieces. That said, the fully illustrated exhibition catalogue is still available for purchase if you'd like to see the works that way!

    Posted: May 7, 2014, 11:04 a.m.

  • Kim Blass says:

    Was there a teacher's guide for this exhibition?

    Posted: February 6, 2015, 12:19 p.m.

  • Claire Moore says:

    Attn: Kim Blass

    While we did not produce an educator resource on the exhibition, there were some great materials generated by the curatorial department that might be of interest including:

    Department of Photographs. "Photography and the Civil War, 1861–1865". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/phcw/hd_phcw.htm (October 2004)

    The exhibition catalogue.

    There is an upcoming educator program, How Can the Arts Bring History to Life?, on Friday, February 13 from 4:00–7:30 p.m. that may be of interest. The program will feature paintings from the Civil War era (among other works from the American Wing) and a performance titled The Unknown "Lincoln-Douglass" Debate featuring historian Harold Holzer and Tony Award–nominated actor and singer Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess, The Phantom of the Opera, ABC'sScandal). To learn more visit www.metmuseum.org/educatorprograms.

    Posted: February 11, 2015, 2:42 p.m.

  • Gregory Bonds says:

    Is there any way to to get an Audio Recording of the Exhibition?

    Posted: August 23, 2015, 4:06 p.m.

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About the Authors

Nadja Hansen was formerly an editorial assistant in the Editorial Department.

Hilary Becker is an administrative assistant in the Editorial Department.

About this Blog

Now at the Met offers in-depth articles and multimedia features about the Museum's current exhibitions, events, research, announcements, behind-the-scenes activities, and more.