Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Alexander Gardner's 'Sketch Book,' on display in Toledo, showed power of war photos

John Reekie's photo of the dead at Cold Harbor
Curator Ed Hill looks through one volume (Photos Toledo Museum of Art)

Alexander Gardner and a cadre of fellow Civil War photographers had a huge impact on the way Americans looked at war through their compelling compositions, notably of the dead.

The Scotsman took haunting images at Antietam and included photographs by others of the fallen in his seminal “Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War,” a two-volume work featuring 100 photographs.

The familiar “A Harvest of Death” by Timothy O’Sullian depicts a half dozen dead Union soldiers at Gettysburg, their boots removed and their pockets picked.

“Such a picture conveys a useful moral,” Gardner wrote. “It shows the blank horror and reality of war, in opposition to its pageantry.”

A rare copy of Gardner’s sketchbook is on display through July 5 at the Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. The American Civil War: Through Artists’ Eyes” uses paintings, drawings, sculpture, photographs and artifacts to retell the events of the time.

(Toledo Museum of Art)

“(Gardner’s is) one of the most important books published in American history and one of the most significant works of photojournalism,” the museum said in a press release about the exhibit. “The fragile volumes are rarely on display.”

Because of its $150 price tag in 1866 (about $2,000 today) and war fatigue, only about 200 copies of the photographic opus were published, according to an article by Middle Tennessee State University. An estimated 15 survive, including the one in the museum’s collection.

(NPS photo)
“Photographic book illustration in the 1860s was a cumbersome undertaking,” the George Eastman House says. “Lacking the ability to photomechanically reproduce photographs as ink on paper, photographic illustration required that original photographs be pasted onto boards that were then bound together with the text. These limitations help to account for the rather small number of copies of the Sketch Book that were produced and the high price of $150.”

The museum patron will recognize many of the works – because of their publication for stereo views, newspapers (as woodcuts), carte de visites and galleries.

Gardner’s September 1862 photographs of the Antietam dead were featured in the studio of his employer, Matthew Brady. A New York Times reporter wrote, “Mr. Brady has done something to bring home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war. If he has not brought bodies and laid them in our door-yards and along streets, he has done something very like it.”

Gardner – who midday through the war emerged from the shadow of Brady and started his own studio -- wanted to create a lasting tribute to innovative Civil War photography. Forty-four of the 100 images are credited to O’Sullivan. Ten other photographers, including Gardner, produced the rest. (Unlike Brady, Gardner credited individual photographers. He took 16 of the photographs).

Alfred Waud created title page (Library of Congress)
Lincoln at Antietam, 1862 (Toledo Museum of Art)
Gardner's brother, James, took this photo (Toledo Museum of Art)

Other subjects of the albumen-silver photographs are military and civilian leaders,homes, camps, forts and general battlefield scenes. Gardner is believed to have written the text for the books. The volumes were bound in brown morocco and gilt-stamped.

The free exhibit in Toledo is meant to spotlight artists’ take on the Civil War and the impact those works still have on the public.

“These were stirring images at the time they were released, and they are equally moving now,” curator Ed Hill said. “Our country split itself in two, so the enemy could have been a brother, a cousin, a neighbor. It wasn't as easy to demonize people, yet the level of violence was still astounding."

Alexander Gardner
Battles covered in the sketchbook were largely restricted to the theater of operations of the Union Army of the Potomac. Scholars have in recent years argued that Gardner and a few other photographers may have moved corpses for staged shots -- a strict no-no today.

A kiosk in the exhibit features a slideshow presentation of all 100 photographs in the sketchbook.

Gardner, who later got into the insurance business, died at age 61 in 1882.

No comments:

Post a Comment